If playing baseball, like writing a novel, is an art, then one could call Chad Harbach, whose book The Art of Fielding is his first, rookie of the year.
Harbach manages to weave an unaffected, comprehensive story that makes for a quick, enjoyable read.
Set at the fictitious Westish College, a small school on Wisconsin’s shore of Lake Michigan, The Art of Fielding is about the tried-and-true American pastime of baseball, but Harbach infuses the topic with new life and meaning.
He writes of the sport: “You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a 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.”
The novel’s protagonist Henry Skrimshander appears to be a weakling in the eyes of the bulky, Marcus Aurelius-reading Westish baseball player Mike Schwartz.
But Skrim-as he is called for short-subsequently amazes Schwartz, the rest of the Westish team, and later major league scouts across the country with his artful skills as shortstop.
Henry seems to embody Renaissance sprezzatura, executing nearly impossible, stunning plays with little effort.
Henry fields with simplicity, restraint, and a Zen-like strategy taught to him by his favorite book (which shares a title with this novel) by his favorite shortstop-the fictional Aparicio Rodriguez (a tribute to Luis Aparicio of the White Sox). He applies this philosophy to his life as well, not ever doing much besides playing baseball, eating, and sleeping.
But as he submits to the inevitable liveliness of campus life-and of being a celebrity gaining national hype-and forms more relationships, thus spending more time thinking, caring, and trying-rather than just playing-Henry’s game begins to lose its effortlessness.
He begins to hesitate and double-pump in his throws, screwing up plays that he used to perform perfectly, mindlessly.
Harbach uses Henry as the point of commonality for all characters in the novel, each of whom has an individual, fully-realized story that contributes to driving the plot forward. Other narrators include Guert Affenlight, the campus president (who develops a dangerously close relationship with Henry’s gay, black, environmentalist roommate Owen), his married, conflicted, talented daughter Pella; and the lumbering, coach-like Mike Schwartz, whom Pella dates.
The Art of Fielding reveals the art in baseball, while exploring the meaning of such art in the midst of a confusing, chaotic life. It is a wonderfully complete, surprisingly profound first novel for Harbach.