Book of the week : The Art Of Fielding - Chad Harbach

In terms of conjuring up pictures of American innocence, there is no better metaphor than baseball, the great American pastime. Touched on by a library’s worth of authors including Walt Whitman, John Updike, Roger Angell and Stephen King, there’s something about the game’s deliberate pace, individual focus and enduring simplicity that seems irresistible to novelists. What then could Chad Harbach’s debut novel about a scrappy college baseball team have new to say about the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd or anything resembling Updike’s “lyric little bandbox”?

Plenty, as it turns out. Harbach’s debut, The Art of Fielding, which is equal parts baseball and campus novel, may not turn out to be the Great American BAseball Novel, but it comes pretty close. Erudite enough to reference Herman Melville, Homer and T.S. Eliot, yet sufficiently geeky to pay homage to the epic struggles of ill-fated ballplayers such as Steve Blass, Steve Sax and Mackey Sasser, this is a book that both Yale-president-turned-baseball-commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti and Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon’s character in “Bull Durham”) would have loved

That’s because instead of focusing on runs and hits, Harbach is most concerned with errors, that cruel statistic line unique to baseball that no one, not even an athlete touched by natural greatness, can ever eliminate. Centering on an imaginary northern Wisconsin private school and its baseball star-in-the-making Henry Skrimshander, Harbach sidesteps much of the familiar myth making that can go along with spinning the American pastime into literature and instead delivers a rich, warmly human story that resonates even if you have no idea what a 6-4-3 double play looks like

Henry Skrimshander, a frail but freakishly talented young shortstop from rural South Dakota, heads out to take extra infield practice after a meaningless American Legion game on a scorching summer day. Watching from the opposing dugout is Mike Schwartz, the cleanup hitter for the Westish College Harpooners. What he witnesses is magic: “The kid glided in front of the first grounder, accepted the ball into his glove with a lazy grace, pivoted and threw to first. Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond. It smacked the pocket of the first baseman’s glove with the sound of a gun going off.”

Henry, as it happens, hasn’t thought much about college, or anything else. He just wants to play shortstop somewhere, anywhere, and Schwartz offers him his chance. Certainly, the Westish nine can use him. Perennial Division III cellar dwellers (the college is located in weather-challenged northern Wisconsin), their most intimidating hitter is a six-foot-six, “mild-eyed” Mormon named Jim “Two-Thirty” Toomer, the nickname referring to the time of day when he hits his batting practice moon shots. “‘We wouldn’t call him Two-Thirty,’” Schwartz tells Henry, “‘if he did it during games.’”

Harbach writes about the Harpooners with touching intimacy and an impressive knowledge of baseball. As Henry develops under Schwartz’s ruthless tutelage into a muscular baseball machine, the team starts winning for the first time in memory. Thankfully, their delightful quirkiness remains in place. There’s Starblind, a vainglorious Nuke LaLoosh-like fireballer; Coach Cox, who may or may not be a multimillionaire; and a gay bench warmer named Owen Dunne, the team’s sage and conscience, who reads Darwin during games with the help of a clip-on reading light

Owen is Henry’s roommate, off-the-field mentor, and general antithesis. He’s brilliant, charming, and strikingly handsome, and he somehow catches the eye of Guert Affenlight, the widowed—and heretofore straight—president of the school. One afternoon, Affenlight ventures to a game to see his young crush, if not in action, than at least in uniform. He plans to stay only a few innings—he’s on his way to pick up his newly separated daughter, Pella, who’s moving back home—but finds himself enraptured, and is still at the game when the unthinkable happens: Henry overthrows first base on a routine ground ball. Worse, the throw sails directly toward Owen, who has his head buried in a book at the end of the dugout

The Art of Fielding deftly explores the lives that are significantly altered by Skrimshander’s throwing error

The throw and its splintered aftermath send the novel into overdrive, both on and off the field. Friendships and love affairs spark and fizzle: Schwartz and Henry; Schwartz and Pella; Owen and Affenlight; Pella and Affenlight; the list goes on. Harbach relies heavily on coincidence , but what gets him off the hook is the nature of the story itself. The Art of Fielding exists somewhere just shy of realism (Henry, for instance, has never made an error in his life before his throw gets away), and this slightly suspended atmosphere of belief provides Harbach room to veer any which way he chooses—which he does, often. The result is expansive, thought-provoking and ambitious, at times overly so. For it’s the smaller moments where Harbach truly shines. When Pella first visits Henry’s dorm room, she spots a painting over Henry’s bed and asks him if Owen painted it (almost nothing in the room belongs to Henry himself). “‘When I first moved in I asked Owen that same question,’” Henry tells her, “‘and he said “Sort of, but I stole it from Rothko.” I thought Rothko was like Shopko—that he’d really stolen it, from a store. I was amazed because it’s so big. How would you steal it? Then I took Art 105.’”

Pella Affenlight, one of the most engaging faculty brats in fiction, is alone worth the cover price. As Skrimshander seeks to conquer a little white ball with some of the same obsessive determination with which Captain Ahab once pursued a great white whale, Harbach’s pervasive literary references are well chosen and rarely gratuitous

Harbach’s observations about baseball can be both pithy and witty (“What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error, but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?”). The parallels that Harbach frequently draws between the art of creating literature and that of mastering the game of baseball are wonderfully insightful. And the writing throughout, as Walt Whitman once said of the game itself, is glorious

Yes, The Art of Fielding can tend to drag during its middle innings and it probably  could have done without some of the more self-consciously clever or puerile names with which Harbach supplies his characters (e.g. a first baseman named Rick O’Shea; another player with the unfortunate surname of Arsch). But these are the sorts of quibbles that one raises only when dealing with a natural talent, one who has the potential to become a Hall of Famer

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February 28, 2012

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