Little, Brown and Company
Many people seem to have a tenuous opinion of the game of baseball at best, and an odious one at worst. On the flip side, there are those who believe that baseball is life, or at least life’s close metaphor. In his debut novel, The Art of Fielding, Wisconsin native Chad Harbach does not attempt to sway the reader one way or another, and in fact tends to avoid such binary identifications. Instead, he places the sport as a backdrop, or more accurately, as a drop cloth for the trials and tribulations of the story’s characters.
Keeping his pace deliberate, but always moving, Harbach engages the reader in a style that is reminiscent of the game in question, lacing in intricate moments of both triumph and lonesome defeat. Using his methodical reasoning, he examines the solitary nature of the game through one character’s ruminations:
Schwartz thought of it as Homeric—not a scrum but a series of isolated contests. Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball… You stood and waited and tried to still your mind. When your moment came, you had to be ready, because if you fucked up, everyone would know whose fault it was. What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?
For those who understand baseball, his methods help to explain the subtleties of life. For those with a remedial understanding of the game, life lessons may serve to illuminate the reader to baseball’s qualities.
Harbach’s language is indicative of one who has not only spent time with the great authors, but has also spent enough time away from them to be able to apply their lessons to great effect. He possesses an ease with the language that can switch from introspective and urbane to vulgar, painting each aspect with a light-handed philosophy that seems alive in itself. He has a knack for placing poetic prose among the locker room jargon found in the baseball playing ranks. Harbach’s descriptions of common postures and gestures which usually go unnoticed and are rarely communicated are of particular worth: “Affenlight exhaled and watched his lungs’ CO2 float whitely away. His elbows rested on his knees, his long knobby fingers interlocked. His forearms, hands, and thighs formed a diamond shaped pond into which his tie dropped like an ice fisher’s line.”
With lush descriptions abounding the novel, it would be easy to forget about the characters, whose development is paramount to the story. Harbach weaves his actors with care, patiently revealing their fabric as the plot moves forward. Their relationships to each other are rooted in their connections to the fictional Westish College’s baseball team. Henry Skrimshander is the shortstop and the focus of most of the on field action, while Mike Schwartz is the man behind the man, a role that he develops resentment for. Henry’s roommate Owen is an incredibly intelligent student and Zen-like ball player who draws the eye of the Westish president Guert Affenlight. Affentlight’s daughter Pella is a bright and impetuous young woman who is trying to escape a failing marriage by enrolling at Westish, a move that reconnects her with her father and sets her on a new path career wise, while recharging her romantic life. Their stories intertwine unexpectedly, forming a rope that tightens its individual strands together as the strain of expectation begins to tug on one end.
The story begins when Schwartz, a burly and authoritative but passionate two sport athlete and hopeful law school attendee, discovers Henry, the opposing team’s graceful shortstop. Schwartz observes Henry taking practice ground balls after playing a game in stifling heat. He is impressed with Henry’s work ethic and his uncanny ability to get to seemingly every ground ball and make a perfect throw to first base. Schwartz, relatively short in natural talent but long in work ethic, takes Henry under his wing and is the catalyst for Henry’s enrollment at Westish College. Henry models himself after the fictional retired major league shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez, a wonder of baseball philosophy, and seems to be the only character who may have the clarity, raw talent, and desire to actually achieve his goal.
Under Schwartz’ tutelage, Henry develops a work ethic that is downright mechanical and his game play improves further, but the pressure on the shortstop increases as well. Harbach poetically demonstrates Henry’s workout regimen in a similarly perfunctory manner: “He had to be a genius and a monster. He had to eat, and eat, and eat. He lifted weights so he could chug his SuperBoost, so he could lift more weights, so he could chug more SuperBoost, lift, chug, lift, chug, trying to gather as many molecules as possible under the name Henry Skrimshander.”
Skrimshander’s desperation may develop into detachment in favor of a life inside the game of baseball, which Henry deems as simpler and therefore, preferable. This singularity in vision toward simplicity may ironically be the most complex of any of the characters’ struggles; especially as his inevitable decline eats away at his psyche. Harbach illustrates both the desire in Henry and the natural tendency to doubt his ability to achieve his goals:
Maybe it wasn’t even baseball he loved but only this idea of perfection, a perfectly simple life in which every move had meaning, and baseball was just the medium through which he could make that happen. Could have made that happen. It sounded crazy, sure. But what did it mean if your deepest hope, the premise on which you’d based your whole life, sounded crazy as soon as you put it into words? It meant you were crazy.
It wasn’t crazy to Henry, but when he falls short his world begins to collapse around him. Henry’s deterioration leads each character to become, in their own way and in Pella’s own words, “Nietzsche’s camel,” taking on all of the world’s burdens by themselves.
While the characters drive the story along, The Art of Fielding presents the college setting as one that is rife with history and may have its own stories to tell. In this way, Harbach has channeled one of the most versatile of settings in a novel that demands at once both flexibility and personality from its setting. A college is a natural fit for a novel in which characters are so clearly goal-oriented. Harbach’s Westish College itself becomes a type of character and seems to be, at least partially, the impetus for much of the character’s actions. His descriptions of campus life will seem familiar to anyone who has spent time on the quad or in the cafeteria:
A Saturday evening gloom hung in the air of the dining hall, and it seemed that the revelry happening elsewhere on campus had left a sad vacuum here. Dinner was no longer being served, and the vomit-green chairs contained only a few lonesome stragglers, gazing down at textbooks as they slowly forked their food. A gigantic clock glowered down from the far wall, its latticed iron hands lurching noisily to mark each passing minute. Go somewhere else, the noise seemed to say, anywhere but here.
The college is a middling liberal arts school along the banks of Lake Michigan whose only real claim to fame is its identification as a one time lecture stop for Herman Melville. This association was discovered by one time student and current Westish President Guert Affenlight, who, since his discovery, has become an authority on the subject. The Melvillian comparisons are easy to see in Henry’s devotion to perfection, with the error free career being his white whale, but each character seems desperate in their search sacrificing ethics, body and soul to find whatever their prize may be.
Baseball seems to serve as Harbach’s method for catching those drips of life that fall through the cracks of conventional story telling and subtly presents them to the reader as its own type of art; which may or may not be worthy of comparison to baseball. Through this method, he allows the readers to decide for themselves how apt the “baseball is life” metaphor may be, though he seems to tacitly understand its relevance.
The Art of Fielding is an engaging novel that does not require the reader to have interest in the sport that it ostensibly is about, but it certainly rewards those who do. It reads quickly, affects deeply, and is a worthwhile examination of fallibility and resilience in life. In his own words, Harbach’s novel seems “to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition.”, and does so with great ease and clarity.
William May is an English student at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. He attempts to write literature and music with varying degrees of success, and hopes to one day get paid for his efforts. He is toying with pursuing a graduate degree in the meantime.