Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding”
The first thing that made me curious about this particular title is the book cover, understandably. It features a clean and elegant (but bold) handwritten script sprawled across the cover, a white swathe prominently displayed against red and blue. Very American, no?
The next thing that made me want to read it were glowing reviews from people I trusted, such as Aldrin and Don. Though, I have to admit that it took me a while to get through the book, because it was such a daunting length. I can also say that life and work got in the way, though, because if you sit down and really make time for it, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is such an arresting read.
It follows several stories of connected people along the same thread of time. So, though everything happens during the same time period, more or less, it alternates between a couple of characters’ perspectives. And what fine characters Harbach has crafted. Set in Westish College, the story begins with Henry Skrimshander, being scouted by Mike Schwartz, an athletic legend as Westish, for their baseball team. Under Schwartz’ tutelage, Skrimshander’s natural talent and grace blossom and make him an unstoppable force on the field.
We also get to know Guert Affenlight, Westish’s president, respected and almost revered by the school due to his personal findings on Herman Melville when he was young academic; Pella, Guert’s prodigal daughter; and Owen, Henry’s ultra-bright and ultra-cool foil, who is also his gay roommate.
Part of why I loved reading this was because Harbach seemed to have seamlessly joined together two obvious loves—literature and baseball. “So much of one’s life was spent reading,” he writes, “it makes sense not to do it alone.” I’m not personally learned in the sport, so all the little details got a little bit lost on me, but I recognize a love letter when I see one. Harbach’s grace with the language reflects the grace of the sport, so that even though I can’t exactly picture the plays he lovingly creates, I can tell that he thought long and hard about them.
Some people might argue that the baseball (I glossed over most of it, because I can’t picture it in my head, unless I ran to Google every time there was a game) would be a distracting element, but it’s truly not. It didn’t take away from the story at all, and I found that I still thoroughly enjoyed it, even if I didn’t know squat about the sport.
¹ I suppose it figures, because they are the only main characters that weren’t part of the baseball team.
I think that the truly compelling thing about this story is how well-developed the characters are. I loved reading their personal histories, however brief, especially those of the Affenlights’.¹ For a fictional college, Westish also has an elaborate history that I practically devoured. I could see it so clearly in my head.
Harbach leads the reader through such great twist and turns of events that never feel forced or contrived, which I appreciated. There is a natural flow to the progression of events and it’s never something so outrageous, that you could never believe it would have ever happened. I think it’s due to the fact that he really knew the characters he wrote. Even the minor characters received even just a line that revealed a lot about their character. For example, Henry thinks of their English professor: “…Professor Eglantine seemed as sensitive as a skinned knee, she frequently cried during class at the beauty of various poems, and Henry worried about disappointing her.” Later, Pella seems oddly fixated on Professor Eglantine and wanting to be her friend or mentee, which I think, in turn, says a lot about Pella, too.
Harbach knew their motivations, their ticks, their fears. He knew how each of them would react when they are inevitably faced with something that could potentially ruin their lives. It’s a heartbreaking novel, with broken people, and it talks about how they deal with their brokenness and discontent. At times, it even touches on how they get past the sadnesses that they’re used to living with, crossing over to something that could possibly make them happy, even if it could be at the cost of disappointing other people.
A particularly touching moment with Guert Affenlight: “[He] realized in what was as close to an epiphanic flash as he’d ever dared to come that there were many ways of living that had never been named or tried.” The Art of Fielding delves into these people’s lives as they slowly relearn how to live, according to the life-altering situations in which they find themselves. It’s doesn’t prove to be an easy feat, but they figure it out, in their own way.