The Art of Fielding
- Chad Harbach
- Little, Brown and Company
- 528 pp.
- Reviewed by Tim Wendel
- September 8, 2011
A great lineup of memorable characters makes this impressive first novel more than another baseball book.
Reviewed by Tim Wendel
Team chemistry. The attribute is often bandied about in sports. But the term can be crucial in literature, too.
Of course, it goes by different, more highfalutin’ names — characterization, character development, etc. Whatever we call it, though, such team chemistry is the resounding strength of Chad Harbach’s outstanding first novel, The Art of Fielding.
In quick order, Harbach rolls out an impressive batting order of memorable folks. We meet Mike Schwartz, team captain of the Westish College ball team. He’s the one who convinces Henry Skrimshander, a small, wiry kid who seems better suited for the Pony Express than the major leagues. At least that’s what everybody thinks until they see the blade of a shortstop throw.
At Westish, Henry’s roommate is the Buddha man, Owen Dunne. Dunne’s academic career is changed forever when he has an affair with Guert Affenlight, the college’s president. For good measure, add the arrival of Guert’s attractive daughter, Pella, on campus and we have the makings of rollicking, expansive novel.
Harbach, who grew up in Wisconsin, plunks this intriguing bunch hard by the shore of Lake Michigan. In short order, the place becomes part Peyton Place, part Brigadoon. Throughout the story, Harbach adeptly sets scene after scene at Westish, often involving multiple characters. Such ensemble-type works are difficult to pull off, but The Art of Fielding ranks with Jennifer Egan’s recent A Visit from the Good Squad. In other words, it’s top-notch.
Despite exhibiting good pace throughout, The Art of Fielding checks in at 500-plus pages, which is impressive even in our steroid era, where no number seems to carry the weight it once did. At times Harbach insists on giving us everything and the kitchen sink. Coming up on the midway point in the novel, one wonders if one or two plot twists could have been shaved in final edits.
Still, Harbach strives to give us more, always more, which is indeed admirable in this time and age when so many try to back up to the pay window. Once all the characters are really in play, The Art of Fielding, like any good story or game, begins to pick up speed. All the major protagonists, from Henry and Mike, to Owen and Pella and her father Guert, are vulnerable in ways that go way beyond how we may picture life on a college baseball team or at a campus of higher learning to be. We find ourselves rooting for them, even though we cannot imagine how all of this is going to play out.
The back story for Harbach and his novel plays almost as well the story at Westish. Unemployed, Harbach sold his manuscript to Hachette Book Group’s Little Brown for $675,000, one of the highest prices ever for a novel appealing to a male audience, according to Bloomberg.
One reason The Art of Fielding works so well on the page is it’s based more on suspense than random reversals. As a result, it doesn’t fall into the predictability of most first novels. Instead, Harbach leads us to what Oakley Hall once termed the novel’s “inevitable surprise.” Even though Henry becomes a shadow of his former playing self, unable to throw the ball with any accuracy or pace to first base by the end of this epic season, he literally takes one for the team on the sport’s biggest stage — the College World Series. In doing so, he brings everyone in this divergent group together for one last mission.
Any good story rises above its perceived genre or limitations. At first blush, The Art of Fielding could be called another baseball novel. It certainly will be, and probably marketed as such. But like the exceptions in any field, it’s about so much more than throwing a ball to first base in time to get the runner hustling down the line.
For The Art of Fielding belongs in the upper echelon of anybody’s league, in this case alongside Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, Scott Lasser’s Battle Creek and W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe. For in figuring out who’s on first, who’s infatuated with whom, we learn more about the world around us and perhaps even a bit more about ourselves. Only the rare novel deserves that distinction.
Tim Wendel in the author of nine books, including the novel Castro’s Curveball and High Heat, which was a New York Times’ editor’s selection. He teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University and can be reached at www.timwendel.com