The Art of Fielding
By Chad Harbach
The Art of Fielding reads like a wicked change-up. The pages flip fast as the narrative creeps closer to the plate, but as the crux of the novel draws near it’s difficult to judge the arch the themes arrive on. Is Chad Harbach’s debut novel about baseball or a University campus? Has he revamped Jonathan Franzen’s brand of psychological realism found in The Corrections, or does his accessible page-turner border on young adult fiction? Is the title a metaphor? Is it another application of Buddhist pedagogy to western pastimes in an attempt at an enlightening read? Is it a gay novel?
All valid questions. The power of the change-up is deception; a good pitcher knows what the batter wants. A great novelist is a master of invoking empathy. Harbach achieves this connection with the reader through carefully developing emotional complexity in his characters. Their vulnerability is genuine. They feel the gravity of modern day predicaments, and struggle to make sense of their individual validity when unclipped from their crutch, be it a university, a team, or a husband. They keep going despite the staggering weight of failure. Much like Samuel Beckett’s ending line to Unnamable — “you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on” — the characters scrape through the story, just as we drag ourselves through our daily lives.
Henry Skrimshander steps to the plate.
The “scrawny novelty of a shortstop” didn’t have a hope of playing college ball until Mike Schwartz, a heavy-drinking jock with a bad knee, scouts him after a baseball game during summer break. Schwartz witnesses perfection in motion: “The kid glided in front of the first grounder, accepted the ball into his glove with a lazy grace, pivoted, and threw to first… his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips...” By fall Skrimshander is enrolled at Westish, a fictional University located “in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin”.
Henry’s perfection jostles with the cast of heroes who live on campus with him. His roommate Owen Dunne introduces himself to Henry with an ironic “I’ll be your gay mulatto roommate.” The lonely and aging president of the college, Guert Affenlight, straight before he lays eyes on “the beautiful Owen”, begins a secretive love affair with the young student. The affair drastically reduces the amount of attention Affenlight allots to his daughter, Pella, who has just moved back home after leaving her husband. The sturdy support that Mike Schwartz offers Henry is crushed when he fails to gain admission to law school. With his future compromised, Schwartz turns his attention to Pella rather than support Henry, who is assured a bright future. However, when Henry makes a mistake on the field, Harbach finds his opening and brilliantly weaves the personal relationships of his characters around Henry’s struggle to perform under pressure.
Perfection as an attainable goal to strive for is severely questioned in the novel. Performing in the competitive “real world” exposes the fears of Henry’s supporting cast, but also shows their advantages over him. The exchange of the perfectionist’s quest to find worth outside of statistical brilliance, and the struggle of the flawed, injured or marginalised to stay on their feet in a time of transition and/or crisis, unite the heroes to metaphorically express the duality of a baseball team: a group under one banner that must possess the particular skill sets required to perform the tasks that define their individual positions for the good of the team. We empathise with the characters because they symbolise the juxtaposition between the individual self and the self as a social being.
When the crux arrives and the themes finally begin to solidify amongst the jubilation of a Westish Harpooner’s tournament victory, the narrator laments: “If Henry were here, Henry’s joy would be total, his holy-fool dancing would put the Buddha’s to shame, but Henry wasn’t here. He hadn’t pushed through that one last barrier, his fear of succeeding, beyond which the world lay totally open to him.” Harbach’s captivating, charming and deeply sensitive novel avoids the myriad clichés of the typical baseball story to create something much deeper and more timeless.