Review: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Don’t take Chad Harbach’s debut novel too seriously. It’s a traditional coming-of-age story against a baseball backdrop. (Basic baseball knowledge is enough to see you through: three strikes and you’re out, each team gets three outs an inning, etc.) The story is told from four perspectives, those of: Mike Schwartz, Henry Skrimshander, Guert Affenlight, and Pella Affenlight.

Mike Schwartz is an overly zealous baseball captain who takes the young and brilliant shortstop, Henry Skrimshander, under his wing at Westish College. The baseball scenes are written with reverence for the game, but the book is rife with odd spurts of humor to keep it loose. Obsessed with perfection, Henry Skrimshander plays one error free game after another. He follows fictional Aparicio Rodriguez’s zen-like approach to fielding as explained in The Art of Fielding, which he has memorized. Once he meets his goal of tying Aparicio’s record for error-free games, he begins to overthink his throws and no longer responds to the game reflexively. Without his reflexes, his uncanny ability to predict the flight of the ball becomes useless. As Henry’s descent into insecurity and inability deepens, he slides to the back of the story and other characters come to light.

The scenes with the Affenlights, the college president and his daughter, are both convincing and cumbersome. Guert, the president, is a likable character whose background in literary study and criticism was clearly fun for Harbach to write; there’s almost as much in this book about literature as baseball, not surprising when you learn Harbach studied English in his Harvard days. Affenlight is the only character in whose hands literary references don’t feel affected and for that reason, he seemed the most natural to me as I read. When the ballplayers bust out an odd quote or reference, it feels unnatural (I’m aware that not all ballplayers are intellectually barren). But his daughter is another story: she’s demanding, spineless, whiny, and fickle. As she has no real interaction with the baseball scenes, she runs around the edges of the main story causing headaches for the players and making demands of her father. I can’t be sure of her place in the story, because she never becomes more than an afterthought to anyone. This makes her pitiable, but not interesting. Her scenes feature some of the book’s most strained dialogue.

While the dialogue is weak overall, the strength of this book is the way it balances the seriousness of baseball with the humorous:

Haircuts threw off a ballplayer’s equilibrium, because they subtly altered the weight and aerodynamicity of his head.  It took, according to Coach Cox, two days to adjust. This posed a problem for Starblind, whose extreme sensitivity to the smallest fluctuations in his own attractiveness led to frequent emergency visits to his stylist. (125)

I read this book in two sittings. Henry’s first years at Westish fly by until slowing down around the events of his junior year. The final quarter is impossible to put down because, as you might expect, it culminates in a series of hugely important games as most sports books do. I was initially nervous about this ending as there are really only two ways it can go: they win the big game, or they lose, and it was hard to imagine that either of these endings could be satisfying. While it ends in surprising enough fashion to not be anticlimactic, it can still be considered a cop-out. After the game, the final scenes verge too far on the ludicrous side of things, and they muddied my opinion of the book overall.

Somehow, I’m becoming more critical of this book the more time I sit and think about it. In the moment, however, it was a book that I tore through it until it was so late that I wouldn’t be able to go to work in the morning if I continued. That says something for it.

Overall: 3.3 (out of 5.0) There’s nothing egregiously wrong with it. If you could fix the dialogue, it would be worth another half point, but it’s a fun trip all the same.

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