The only affinity I have for baseball is that The Sandlot is my favorite childhood movie, and I like to go to Wrigleyville to have a good time, Cubs game or no Cubs game.
So I was both surprised and delighted when Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding turned out to be my favorite book of 2012 so far. Harbach, a graduate of Harvard and the co-founder of the (great) literary journal n+1, took nine years to write The Art of Fielding, and the time and care shows. The New York Times called the book a “slow, precious and altogether excellent first novel.” The Art of Fielding is, I agree, a home run. (How could I resist that one?)
The debut novel chronicles the experience of Henry Skrimshander, a small-town and small-sized kid with big-time baseball talent. He’s spotted by Mike Schultz, the captain of the baseball team at Wetish College, a fictional, small liberal arts school located on the shores of Lake Michigan. Schultz recruits Skrimshander, who joins the team.
Even at a small college, Skrimshander’s small-town innocence almost immediately gets debased. His roommate, the enigmatic Owen, is gay, a fact that doesn’t really bother Henry but sets his parents afire when he tells them over the phone. Meanwhile, with the help of Schultz, Skrimshander begins downing protein shakes and getting up at dawn to exercise. Their hard work and natural talent lead their team to some very large victories, until Skrimshander begins to feel the pressure manifesting in a myriad of ways.
The baseball storyline is complemented beautifully by the drama of Guert Affenlight, Wetish’s handsome, unmarried president. Affenlight’s vivacious daughter, Pella, who a few years back dropped her acceptance to Yale to get married and move to California, returns home to Wetish after realizing the stupidity of her former decisions. Pella romances baseball players, and something unbeknownst to her or anyone else, Affenlight does too.
The Art of Fielding is, when it comes down to it, a baseball book. But even Harbach writes, “Baseball – what a boring game! One player threw the ball, another caught it, a third held a bat. Everyone else stood around.” Harbach’s writing style is even reminiscent of the game – simple, unassuming. But Harbach weaves a lovely literariness into the baseball that makes it come alive with an emotional punch. He uses Moby Dick as an intellectual complement throughout the novel – Wetish’s team is called the Harpooners, and Lake Michigan serves as a significant body of water. It’s these details that strike the reader with the novel’s depth and character.
Harbach named it The Art of Fielding for a reason. He shows the art inherent to the game, even to someone completely apathetic to baseball.
Time Taken? It’s quite long, at over 400 pages. But it’s not a book you “get through.” I found myself craving it like Portillo’s on 4/20. I was sad for it to end, and have been hard-pressed to find a book that’s as readable since.
Worth reading? In my opinion, all the hype over The Art of Fielding was justified. It’s a novel crafted with skill that keeps you reading. Plus, Harbach will be participating in the Chicago Tribune’s excellent “Author Talks” series on May 7, so you have the chance to buy tickets and meet him to hear a discussion about the book. I know I’ll be there!