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.