Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Literary Bite: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

I love this book. I started reading The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach on a Friday at the pool after work, and could not put it down! By Saturday afternoon I’d already read a solid couple hundred pages.

It’s well-written and engaging and interesting and *gasp* makes me like baseball! When I started reading, The Art of Fielding seemed like it would be a classic underdog sports story – Henry Skrimshander the undersized phenom shortstop, making it in baseball at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. But Henry turned into a lesser character in comparison with Guert Affenlight, the college’s Moby Dick-obsessed president, Mike Schwartz, Henry’s best friend and pseudo-coach, and Pella, Affenlight’s estranged but returned daughter.

The NYT characterized it not as a baseball novel, but as “a campus novel and a bromance (and for that matter a full-fledged gay romance), a comedy of manners and a tragicomedy of errors…”

But it begins and ends with baseball, and the sport is used as a metaphor for the pursuit of truth and beauty.

  • “For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we're alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not. Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn't matter how beautifully you performed SOMETIMES, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren't a painter or a writer--you didn't work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn't just your masterpieces that counted.”

I on-and-off loved and hated all the characters. None are perfect, and all, at one point or another, I just wanted to shake. The novel builds up to everything going well – Henry is about to go pro, Schwartz is dating Pella – until things go dramatically wrong. Suddenly Henry becomes paralyzed by overthinking and loses his touch (nothing gets me like someone failing at a sport they love). When things go wrong with Henry, they begin to go wrong for everyone else as well, and through a series of events everyone makes mistakes and everything falls apart.

The story's events and relationships don’t always seem very plausible to me, but then I didn’t go to a small college in the Midwest. And really, plausible or not, it doesn’t matter because the story is great. This is Harbach’s first novel. He’s a Jonathan Franzen-like writer – modern American fiction that particularly appeals to people of my generation.

I have been recommending The Art of Fielding right and left – seriously, you should read it!

And now, much like this reviewer, I want to read Moby Dick.