Chad Harbach’s THE ART OF FIELDING is a very good debut novel about baseball, baseball teams, the friends baseball players make along the way, and life in general. The primary character of THE ART OF FIELDING is Henry Skrimshander, a superb defensive shortstop who has never made an error. (This last is quite a reach, as everyone makes errors in baseball. But I digress.) Henry is bright, capable, virginal, and a baseball prodigy, but because he’s from South Dakota, no one knows anything about him. (If you’re thinking about movies like The Natural or Field of Dreams, you’re on the right track.)
One day, at an American Legion tournament, a catcher from the opposing team spots Henry during fielding practice. This catcher, Mike Schwartz, immediately recruits Henry to Westish University, a small, Division III liberal arts college in Wisconsin, and of course Henry goes (otherwise there would be no story).
Once Henry arrives at Westish, he settles in, starts to gain weight and bulk up a bit, and plays ball. He meets his roommate, Owen Dunne, who blandly introduces himself as “your gay mulatto roommate,” which reminds Henry — and the reader — that Henry’s no longer in South Dakota any more. Owen is also a baseball player who’s read “The Art of Fielding” (a defensive manual akin to THE INNER GAME OF TENNIS, intended for shortstops or those trying to get inside the game), and can relate to Henry even though they couldn’t be more different aside from their mutual love of the game.
So far, so good; we’ve got a “bromance,” an excellent baseball story with a lot of insights that ring true, and a mythical figure in Henry, the shortstop who’s never made an error. But then, the plot thickens; Owen takes a lover — a most unexpected one, at that — and the consequences of this may prove to be his undoing. Then we meet Pella Affenlight, daughter of the University President Guert Affenlight; she’s a twenty-four year old woman getting a divorce from a much older husband, and starts a relationship with Henry’s teammate, Schwartz.
So, we have Owen and his lover; we have the University President and his daughter; we have Henry and his baseball. Which will fall apart first?
THE ART OF FIELDING is a literary novel, so in some senses, despite how great the baseball scenes are, they are still a MacGuffin. The story is really about what happens to Henry after he finally, inevitably, makes an error (he falls apart, as you might expect); it’s also about the consequences of Owen’s affair, about Pella attempting to grow up and going through many tribulations along the way, and about how Henry’s teammates, including Mike Schwartz, have to deal with the end of Henry’s brilliance while hoping for a return of Henry’s workmanlike competence.
Many reviewers have waxed nostalgic about THE ART OF FIELDING, and have pointed out the ways that this book compares with other literary novels, including the one most emulated by English-speaking writers, Herman Melville’s MOBY-DICK (which Harbach directly references by making his University President a Melville scholar). Much of that is true with regards to the “bromance,” baseball, and even the love affair between Owen and his older paramour, but it fails when it comes to the relationship between Pella and Schwartz. Pella is an immature woman, yes, and needs to find her place in the world. But THE ART OF FIELDING tries to make a case for Pella staying with Mike despite her cheating on him (even though in baseball, it’s usually the other way around); this role reversal does not work.
Further, Pella is not drawn well. She’s supposed to be in love with Mike Schwartz, but Harbach takes this at face value. The relationship is never delved into, Schwartz never confronts Pella for anything she does, they have terrible communication, and yet somehow, they stay together anyway. I did not buy this at all.
My best guess as to what Harbach intended with this romance was that Mike, a catcher without the talent for the minor leagues who’s nearing the end of the road because his body is worn down, is supposed to be astonished that this beautiful, glamorous woman would be interested in him. So he puts up with anything she does, and says nothing about it.
However, this makes no sense. Schwartz is a self-assured, self-willed motivator, and the reader knows that from the first page of the book. Schwartz mixes it up on the field, being a prototypical pugnacious catcher of the old school. He wants to go to law school. He has dreams, ambitions, and goals — he is not a loser, is not a low-life, is not lacking in self-esteem, yet he puts up with terrible behavior for no reason at all except that Pella is “hot.”
Once again: I don’t buy it, especially in the context of a literary novel.
As a book, THE ART OF FIELDING is at its best when it focuses on Henry and his trials and tribulations, or Schwartz by himself, or Owen and Owen’s lover, or in a broader sense, when it deals with the twin games of baseball and life. Because of Harbach’s excellent grasp of these subjects, his debut effort is strong, and well worth reading.
That said, I really wish Harbach had written a more believable female character in Pella; if he had, this book would’ve been one for the ages in every possible respect. As it is, it’s merely a very good debut novel that shows Harbach has a whole lot of work to do when it comes to understanding women, romance, or what keeps couples together despite adversity. Simply put: being “hot” is not enough, and Harbach really should’ve known better than to think that it was.
–reviewed by Barb
Note: In literary novels, there often are characters with “tragic flaws.” Henry has one in that he believes without his extraordinary fielding gifts, he’s not worth much. Pella has one in that she can’t seem to be faithful even when she says she’s in love. But Schwartz’s “fatal flaw” being that he’ll stay with a woman who’s “hot” no matter what she does to him is not one that passes the “smell test.” Sorry.