(originally published/reviewed for HipsterBookClub.com in October 2011)
THE ART OF FIELDING: A NOVEL
By CHAD HARBACH
Little, Brown and Company, 2011
520 pages; Hardcover
Reviewed by Samantha Storey
In Chad Harbach’s debut novel The Art of Fielding, Henry Skrimshander has the life. He’s a baseball prodigy with an arm faster and more accurate than most pro players and a passion only a young person can possess. After a shocking error, Henry’s life and the lives of those around him are permanently changed. The Art of Fielding is coming-of-age story for people coming into different, mostly uncomfortable, parts of their lives. Oh, and there’s some baseball, too.
Henry is a classic Midwestern kid: average at nearly every angle with exception only to his baseball career, which is still destined to go nowhere until an intervention by a Mike Schwartz, a Westish College baseball player who spots him at a high school game. It’s clear Henry’s a star; at Westish, he plays errorless for enough games to tie the NCAA record of his idol, the fictional St. Louis Cardinals shortstop, Aparicio Rodriguez, who’s career memoir, The Art of Fielding, Henry carries around like a bible. With a professional career looking increasing likely, Henry’s career and life is changed with his first error, a rogue throw that hits his room- and teammate, Owen. The throw not only changes Henry’s confidence during the game, but renders him unable to complete a successful throw. Harbach’s depiction of Henry’s decline is painful for both his teammates and readers, who can’t help but feel the suspense and heartbreak as he faces error after error:
The distance called for a casual sidearm fling—he’d done it ten thousand times. But now he paused, double-clutched. He’d thrown the last one too soft, better but a little mustard on it—no, no, not too hard, too hard would be bad too. He clutched again. Now the runner was closing in, and Henry had no choice but to throw it hard, really hard, too hard for Ajay to handle from thirty feet away; it handcuffed him, glanced off the heel of his glove and into short right field.
The Art of Fielding is one of those sprawling novels with several characters demanding one’s attention; in this case, Harbach’s preoccupations run the gamut from Henry to Owen to Mike to the sexually ambitious head of college Guert Affenlight and his daughter, the emotionally conflicted Pella. But Harbach’s pacing is delicate and deliberate, as Henry sinks into a deep depression, the others are entwined in his narrative and rush to fix what they individually perceive as his problems, all the while ignoring or postponing their own:
What absorbed Affenlight most, during his hours at the diamond, was the hope that Henry Skrimshader would get better. Would get better—the phrasing said it all, as if Henry had some terrible malady that might never lift. The empathy Affenlight felt for him surpassed anything he’d ever felt for a character in a novel. It rivaled, in fact, the empathy he’d ever felt for anyone. We all have our doubts and fragilities, but poor Henry had to face his in public at appointed times, with half the crowd anxiously counting on him and the other half cheering for him to fail.
The Art of Fielding does what good books do best: It makes everyone and everything interesting. In a way, Harbach has delivered a simple coming-of-age novel about overcoming and moving on from life’s greatest successes and failures, and what separates it from other similarly-themed novels is that there is no age discrimination. People come of age every day, and the way they move on is influenced by those around them, no matter how unlikely an influence they may be. If there are concerns about The Art of Fielding being a sports novel, cast them away. Harbach writes about the oft-depicted chaw-spitting, dirt-sliding sport of baseball like a technical ballet, the movements of his players acrobatic and deliberate—maybe even beautiful if it didn’t sound too girly to attach such a word to so rugged a sport.