The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

Purchased at Indigo.ca

My experience with The Art of Fielding is a useful reminder that I should be careful about letting ingrained bias get in the way of me reading some good novels. The appearance of Chad Harbach’s debut volume featured much hype, followed by predictably glowing reviews — a recipe that immediately plants a “give it a pass” reaction with KfC. But a few months back when I offered a lukewarm opinion here on an even more hyped novel (Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot), positive evaluations of The Art of Fielding in comments from two regulars whose opinions I respect (Lee Monks and David) convinced me that perhaps I was making a mistake.

After all, The Art of Fielding is a “college” novel, a mini-genre that tends to strike a responsive chord with this reader. And it does feature sport — in this case, baseball — which speaks to my personal interests, although I confess not generally an indication of literary quality. Let’s just jump to the chase and say that Harbach delivers on both fronts.

The Art of Fielding is set at Westish College, a small liberal arts school in northern Wisconsin located on the shores of Lake Michigan. Like many college novels (including Eugenides’), its conceit is to place a cast of characters in the self-enclosed community that is both the college and its surrounding town and then let life unfold. Rather than trying to follow the plot and time line, I’ll focus on that cast.

The central member is Henry Skrimshander, a slight high school shortstop from South Dakota, whom we meet at a high school Legion baseball tournament. We see him first through the eyes of Mike Schwartz, the catcher of the Westish Harpooners (NCAA Division III, so hardly a powerhouse), who mocks him with the quiet epithet “Pussy” when Henry weakly strikes out in a losing cause. Schwartz’s opinion changes after the game when the South Dakota coach heads to home plate with a five-gallon paint bucket of balls, accompanied by the first baseman with empty bucket, and begins hitting grounders to Henry:

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. The coach hit another, a bit harder: same easy grace, same gunshot report. Schwartz, intrigued, sat up a little. The first baseman caught each throw at sternum height, never needing to move his glove, and dropped the balls into the plastic bucket at his feet.

College (and sport) novels aren’t really noted for subtlety of plot — that description of the post-game workout a few hundred words into the novel is notice enough that Henry is a “talent” and that that theme will be central to the story. Schwartz, coming up to his senior year and virtually an assistant coach of the team, has pull enough with the real coach that Henry is offered a spot at Westish. We also soon learn of Henry’s own devotion to The Art of Fielding, a baseball memoir written by Aparicio Rodriguez (alas, it isn’t an actual book but Harbach is paying tribute to both another legendary shortstop, Luis Aparicio, and a modern star, ARod of the Yankees). Suffice to say that Rodriguez’s college fielding records are at risk — and there will be professional agents and scouts making the trip to Westish to check Henry out.

Schwartz is the foil for this story line. He is the kind of character who makes college novels worthwhile, simply because anyone who went to a post-secondary institution knows a version of him. Schwartz is a BMOC, star of both the football and baseball teams and a heart-throb for Westish co-eds, many of whom he has bedded. He’s tough, but decent, and a good enough student that he has sent off applications to the nation’s best law schools. Yet it is apparent from the start — and the author delivers on this very well — that Schwartz’s senior year will be the apex of his life, the last time that he will be “special” and the start of discovering what “normal” will be in future decades. Anybody who ever went to college knows a Schwartz.

A bridge to other story lines is provided when Henry arrives at his Westish dorm and discovers someone on his hands and knees in the bathroom, carefully cleaning the grungy grout with a toothbrush, introduces himself and gets the strange response of “Really…are you sure?”:

The young man rose to his feet and, after peeling off one of his bright-yellow gloves, pumped Henry’s hand warmly. “I was expecting someone larger,” he explained. “Because of the baseball fact. My name’s Owen Dunne. I’ll be your gay mulatto roommate.”

Owen is also on the baseball team, although he is a bench-warmer. His bigger claim to fame is that he is that year’s recipient of the Martha Westish Award, the school’s premier academic scholarship which comes with the reward of a single room. College president Guert Affenlight had strongly advocated for Dunne when the choice was made. When the baseball team coach came calling, saying Henry needed a room, Affenlight agreed to negotiate new terms with Owen — the promise of a computer and a book allowance were enough to get him to accept a roommate.

Which brings us to President Affenlight, whose academic reputation was established with his youthful authorship of The Sperm-Squeezers, a study of the “homosocial and homoerotic in nineteenth-century American letters”, sensationally successful enough to get him into the Times and Time and interviewed on CNN. A little back story is necessary here: Guert was a Westish undergraduate student whose interest in Herman Melville led him deep into the library stacks where he found the manuscript of an address that the author of Moby Dick had made at the college. Westish and Lake Michigan may be a long way from Melville’s oceans, but the manuscript has served both the college (they changed team names from Sugar Maples to Harpooners as part of their Melville-centred marketing push) and Affenlight well. He has not written much since, but the book and his teaching ability brought him a comfortable tenured post at Harvard. Eight years ago, Westish came calling the then 52-year-old Affenlight with an offer of the president’s job. A single parent whose talented daughter could be placed in a toney private school, he accepted and has been living in the suite attached to the president’s office ever since. Life will change in the year of the novel, however: Affenlight discovers that his attraction to Owen was more than academic.

There has to be a female in the story somewhere and that will be the daughter, Pella. She and her father have been estranged for four years. Just before graduation from the toney prep school — and already accepted at Yale — she ran off with a visiting lecturer, a San Francisco architect, and married him. She wasn’t just skipping college, she thought she was skipping that whole challenging period of life. Unfortunately (and we all know versions of Pella as well) that attempt to short-circuit life experience didn’t work and the marriage is a punishing disaster. As the novel opens, Pella has fled San Francisco and her architect husband and returned “home” to her father in Westish, trying to turn the clock back and begin the process of getting those four years of life experience she missed.

Those five main characters and a host of well-drawn secondary ones go through some pretty predictable plot developments and crises (some of which, it has to be admitted, require a lot of licence from the reader), but that is no criticism of Harbach. Indeed, the comfort of a lack of surprising plot developments is welcome since it offers more chance to contemplate his characters, because they are the real strength of the novel.

The result for this reader is a book that is not only entertaining but, in its own way, thought-provoking. A good “college” novel takes you back to your own experience and The Art of Fielding certainly did that — all five main characters brought back memories of similar creatures from my own school days. That, though, is the “depth” of the novel: on an entirely satisfying surface level, it is a story that features a largish cast of well-developed characters, every one of whom I found interesting.

Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot certainly had its moments, but for all the fine writing it had some very boring stretches as well. For this reader, The Art of Fielding was a far better read, rarely wandering off course. I still don’t think it was worth quite so much hype (it is a very good read, not a great novel) but I owe Lee and David a vote of thanks for convincing me to give it a chance. I’ll add my voice to theirs in recommending The Art of Fielding. Finally, if you don’t care about baseball, don’t let that put you off — interesting characters, which is what this novel is about, need to be involved in something and baseball is as good as anything else.

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29 Responses to “The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach”

  1. Kerry Says:

    Kevin,

    I was, more or less, planning to read this one in anticipation of the Tournament of Books. I am sure I will now. I won’t expect too much from it, though.

    I definitely prefer novels about characters rather than about plot. I am willing to forgive much in plot, if I find the characters worth spending time with.

    I plan to borrow it from the library, so I am waiting in line. I will read it when my number comes up.

    Interestingly, its first round opponent in the TOB is Open City for which I have high hopes (as a read, I haven’t a copy on hand yet). If it makes it past Round 1, sounds like it has a good shot at knocking off The Marriage Plot (assuming TMP beats upstart Green Girl).

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I do have a copy of Open City (bought because Tony at Tony’s Book World had it at the top of his list) and will move that up my reading order. From the description of it, they are two very different books.

    I am enthusiastic about this book, from a reader’s point of view, although I think its success in the tournament will depend very much on the judge. I’ll be interested in what I think about it a few weeks or months down the road — at the moment, I would say that I am quite impressed.

  3. Bob Parkins Says:

    The Art of Fielding was also the subject of a terrific piece in Vanity Fair last fall, on what was involved not just in writing it but developing it and publishing it and all the rest — the “making” of The ARt of Fielding, I blv. The article may have since been turned into an e-book. In an event, highly instructive for anyone interested in any aspect of the book trade.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Bob: Thanks — I’ll search it out. And since I know of your interest in baseball, if you haven’t read the book you might be interested that one of the side set pieces is an exploration of the history of the Steve Blass Disease.

  5. Guy Savage Says:

    Thanks kevin: I was looking at this earlier today and couldn’t decide. Now I’m tipped over into the ‘will read’ side.

  6. Michael Says:

    I read “The Art Of Fielding” but had to put on my ‘blinkers’ on in that I skip through most of the description of baseball (knowing absolutely nothing about it) – honestly I thought it would have been just a strong a novel without all that sports but I guess it was really trying hard for the ‘great american novel’ tag

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Michael: Well, as I said in the review, the characters have to be involved in something and the something here happened to be baseball — I do agree that you can skip past that and it is still a very good novel, although I can also understand why some would find it frustrating.

    I didn’t get any sense at all that Harbach was trying for the “great American novel” with this book. If he was reaching for anything, my comparisons would be something like John Williams’ Stoner or William Maxwell’s novels. And having said that, I don’t think this novel is up to them — but that in no way detracts from it being a very good read.

  8. Mrs.B. Says:

    I missed your review of The Marriage Plot but I had a lukewarm response to it as well. Some brilliant moments and beautifully written paragraphs in the first half but then the second half became tedious. I’ve been avoiding Art of Fielding precisely because of my reaction to the Marriage Plot but your above review makes me think I should rethink my decision and give it a try one of these days.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Mrs. B: I had almost exactly the same response as you to The Marriage Plot so that may bode well for you and this book. All of the characters but Pella are not only jocks they are male, which may be an issue — having said that, I think Harbach writes about them in a way that is accessible.

  9. David Says:

    I’m glad to see you enjoyed the novel, Kevin. I’ve seen a few comments on UK blogs where people are being put off reading it because of the baseball, but I really think you can look past that (and I say this as someone who is not a fan of any sports) – as you point out, the characters have to be involved in something, and I think any reader can relate to characters having a passion, whether that be for baseball, Moby Dick or anything else. Yes, you could skip some of the baseball passages, but I think you’d be missing out on something by doing so.

    I’ve never heard of Tournament of Books before, but having Harbach pitted against Teju Cole’s “Open City” sounds interesting. I read both of them towards the end of last year and thoroughly enjoyed both, but in different ways. Cole’s is a much more thoughtful novel that you engage with intellectually, whereas Harbach’s works more on an emotional level, so it would very much depend on who is judging them – they’re both very good novels. What I would say is that I’ve read 30-odd books since and “The Art of Fielding” is still completely fresh in my mind, whereas I had to actually remind myself what “Open City” is about.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: I never played organized baseball, but would characterize myself as somewhat of a fan — I do pay sideways attention during the season and watch the playoffs and World Series. So I do remember Steve Blass and his disease, not to mention Chuck Knoblauch, whose problem was more similar to Henry’s. The baseball writing is very good about the sport but I don’t think you have to know the sport to really understand it — if you do, it just adds another dimension. I agree that the author is more interested in the “passion” the characters have for it and how he develops that as part of their character.

    I keep picking up Open City and putting it down. I don’t try to read all the ToB list of 16 (I think I am at about six or seven so far) but will try to use that as motivation. As for the ToB itself, it is not a “real” prize in the sense of big dollars or reputation, but I do find the debate that it provokes interesting. Unfortunately the 140-character Twitter world has meant the slow death of most book discussion forums — ToB at least is still going.

    • Lee Monks Says:

      Really glad you enjoyed it, Kevin. It is, as has been mentioned elsewhere, somewhat contrived and classically tidy re construction and resolution, but I think you can forgive it any shortcomings. It’s such a generous, compulsive, indelible read. I agree with David: I can remember huge chunks of it. Whilst having mnemonic chops doesn’t take this any closer to the heights some have probably unfairly claimed it’s trying to attain, I found it engrossing, rewarding and exceedingly likeable. These are characters you want to spend time with through 500+ pages. That deserves a good deal of credit. It’s a debut of admirable flamboyance and wit and Harbach writes like a thawed Franzen.

      Great review as well!

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: You are quite right about parts being both contrived and tidy — fairly frequently while reading the book I thought “well…really” and then moved cheerily along. I guess that is why I chose to emphasis characters not plot and story line in the review — I think if I tried to outline those, I’d have to offer so many qualifications and explanations that the only response would be a “why should I want to read this book?” The answer being, of course, a crew of genuinely interesting people. I read the novel over three days and could not wait to open it each day — and was amazed to look down and discover that I had completed another 60 pages without even noticing it.

    Many thanks for the tip –without the thoughts from you and David, I probably would not have picked it up.

    • Lee Monks Says:

      No problem at all. I owe you many a tip from these pages. I had a very similar experience: the book was an affable blur, over all too quickly. I was sad to reach the finale. A popular classic, almost inevitably so.

  12. savidgereads Says:

    This is getting so much hype in the UK it is untrue Kevin, well no it is true because its happening, but you know what I mean. That is the first thing that has put me off reading it, the second is the baseball. I have zero interest in the sport and so that really does almost quench any desire I would have had – the baseball and the hype together, killer.

    BUT as you have said you might have been put off by one of those things, so maybe I should give the book a chance and try it at least?

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Simon: It is interesting that the initial wave of hype in North America set me off enough that I proceeded to tune out the rest — my annoyance level was quite low by the time the comments here drew my attention to the book. Unlike, say, The Tiger’s Wife, where a combination of hype, description and reviews from people I respect has convinced me that my biases mean it is not a book for me.

    As for baseball, I have watched very few cricket matches and know little about the sport, but that hardly got in the way of my understanding why it was important in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. I’ve been trying to think of a U.K. comparison to this novel and can’t really come up with a good one. Skippy Dies is probably closest — perhaps describing this as a one-volume version of that three-book effort is as close as I can come.

  14. leroyhunter Says:

    Do you follow any team, Kevin…I’m guessing you’re not a Blue Jays fan?

    There is an extraordinary amount of hype about this book in UK / Ireland. I must admit that, in combination with the fact a lead character is called Skrimshander, the noise is putting me off. That’s depsite a strong personal recommendation from a source I usually wouldn’t ignore.

    You’ve also reminded me that I still haven’t read Skippy Dies, despite conscientiously bumping it up the TBR pile.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: I don’t have a favorite team, which is one reason why I don’t pay much attention in the regular season (and you are right, I have never been a Blue Jays fan — I did like the Expos when they were around). Once the playoffs come around, I usually back the small market teams since I don’t like the idea of buying the World Series — which means I am often not happy with the result.

    As much as I liked this book, I’d say taking on Skippy Dies first is probably a good idea. Keep this one in mind for when the hype dies down.

  16. Ava Homa Says:

    Kevin,
    Why do you think some books get the hype and some go entirely unnoticed? What are some reasons?

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Ava: If you have access to the October Vanity Fair article that Bob Parkins mentions in his comment above (alas, I can’t find it online), I suspect it would give you a thorough answer since it is exactly about how this novel came to be so hyped.

    My own short answer is very simple: books get hyped because publishers think they will sell. With a debut novel like this one, that starts with a big advance and a conscious decision to push media appearances, store displays, etc. Given the apparent sales success of this novel, I’d say they made a good bet — often that is not the case and debut books don’t sell, despite the hype.

    My guess is also that they expect a movie will be in the offing, which creates a whole second wave of book sales, plus new tie-in editions.

    As I confessed, all that activity tends to put me off, which is sometimes unfair to the author and book — which would have been the case with this one if it hadn’t been for David and Lee. Never let it be said that commenters don’t have a positive influence here. :-)

  18. sshaver Says:

    I like your phrase “a punishing disaster.”

    So often, sadly, they are.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I’d loved to have used the phrase “a punishing disaster”, but I can’t find it. So now I am intrigued — where did you find it?

      EDIT: Whoops, I just found my phrase, in the description of Pella’s marriage. Sometimes we don’t even remember our most creative work.

  19. Mrs.B. Says:

    I just finished this and I agree with you. It was good but not great. It was definitely better than the Marriage Plot because it never wandered off into different tangents. It had interesting characters as well. I felt the first half was better than the second. Reading the first half I thought this would turn out to be a great novel but I was wrong.

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mrs. B: I found it more consistent than you did, although I agree the plot setup of the first half impressed me more than the resolution in the second half. I definitely found the characters more interesting than those in The Marriage Plot.

  21. Liz from Literary Masters Says:

    The Art of Fielding is Literary Masters’ selection for May, and it has turned out to be an excellent choice. Most people (not all, but most) have loved the book, but more importantly, the discussions have been fantastic. The book has just the right amount of ambiguity–there’s no one way to interpret it. Some of my members consider it a coming of age novel, others consider it a redemption tale, and others view it as a sad story about the inexplicable human need to self-destruct. Really fascinating. Everyone has been captivated by the characters, and I’ve loved all the nods to Melville! A deeply psychological novel, in my opinion. An impressive debut novel.

  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Liz: I do think it makes for a good book club novel — because as you note it can be approached from so many different angles (even baseball :-) ). Most of the characters succeed, albeit some are drawn better than others. A few months down the road, I have many fond memories of the book.

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