The Art of Fielding
Bill Veeck spent a life in baseball and often observed that it is a game to be savored, not gulped. Perhaps it is the meandering pace and quiet interludes that make the game compatible with literature. Writers including John Tunis, Robert Coover, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, to name just a few, have captured the essence of the national pastime in novels that are as unique in their form and substance as the great baseball parks across America.
"There is so much going on in THE ART OF FIELDING that readers may find themselves returning to its pages long after the book has been completed."
In baseball, a highly touted rookie makes his major league appearance with anticipation and excitement. Some, like Ichiro Suzuki and Ken Griffey Jr., attain stardom, while others fail and their names are forgotten. Just as a promising ballplayer, rookie author Chad Harbach came to literary circles with a much anticipated book, which brought him a hefty advance as well as the purchase of film rights by HBO. It turns out that all the hype has been justified. In baseball, a five-tool player does it all --- runs, hits for power and average, throws and fields well. Harbach’s tale of Henry Skrimshander, a gifted shortstop discovered in American Legion baseball, is a five-tool novel. Harbach has an engrossing plot, engaging characters, endearing literary references, beautiful writing, and touching realism that readers will not soon forget. This debut is the baseball equivalent of a pitcher coming to the big leagues and throwing a no-hitter in his first game.
Skrimshander is discovered by Mike Schwartz, who is playing at tiny Westish College, a Division III school in Wisconsin. The Harpooners, named in honor of a visit to the campus by Herman Melville, is a baseball team in search of the great white whale of victory. Henry is a slight but graceful shortstop who hones his skills through constant practice and devoted reading of a book written by one of the greatest shortstops of all time, Aparicio Rodriguez. Appropriately it’s titled “The Art of Fielding.”
Arriving at Westish, Henry is driven by his personal ambition and the devoted assistance of Schwartz to become a great player. By his junior year, he is approaching fielding records and drawing the attention of major league scouts. A high draft selection, accompanied by a large signing bonus, seems inevitable.
Then, as happens in life as well as in baseball, a single play changes everything. One throw goes awry, and suddenly nothing will be the same for Henry or the people whose lives he touches.
In addition to Schwartz, the novel’s roster includes Owen, Henry’s roommate; Guert Affenlight, the president of the university; and Guert’s grown daughter, Pella, who has returned to campus to sort out what remains of her failed marriage. There is even a cameo appearance by the aforementioned Rodriguez, who comes to Westish to honor Henry’s accomplishments.
The great baseball novels share an important attribute: their writers know baseball. Malamud loved the sport and captured its meaning in THE NATURAL. Harbach describes the Westish games with a poetic grace that would make legendary sportswriters envious. But THE ART OF FIELDING is far more than a book about baseball.
Great novels produce characters who readers will remember. Henry and Mike are bound by their quest for victory. Owen and Guert are bound by their attraction that is destined for a tragic Shakespearean conclusion. Pella is the perfect complement to the men of the book. She has never achieved the potential of her youth and, returning to her father’s home, must confront her failure.
There is so much going on in THE ART OF FIELDING that readers may find themselves returning to its pages long after the book has been completed. In a beautiful way, the love of baseball and of literature combine here to remind us of the fallibility of life. As Rodriguez reminds us in his book, “Prepare, allow the ball to come to you and thoughtlessly make the play.” This is the way to read Harbach’s beautifully crafted novel. Let it come to you. You will not forget the experience.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on September 19, 2011