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Chad Harbach: The Art of Fielding

Few sports can boast several excellent novels about them. Football, rugby, cricket, basketball have all had novels written about them but not many and few very good ones. Baseball is an exception, often dealing with themes found in other US novels such as action heroes, poor boy makes good, sports as a philosophy of life and male bonding. Harbach’s novel adds to the roster of fine baseball novels and is a very fine effort for a first novel. As in cricket, fielding usually takes third place in importance, after batting and bowling/pitching but, in this case, as the title indicates, fielding becomes all important.

This one falls into two categories. Firstly, there is the boy from the ordinary background who becomes a baseball star and secondly there is the baseball star who has doubts about his ability and falls (for a while) from baseball grace, both not uncommon themes. The individual in both cases is Henry Skrimshander. He is first spotted playing in a (very) minor league competition by Mike Schwartz, who is a college baseball catcher. He taunts Henry, while Henry is batting and Henry misses but, after the game, when Henry does some fielding practice with a coach, Mike is amazed at Henry’s ability to field every ball without difficulty and fire it accurately in to the coach. Henry seems to have no future in baseball but Mike arranges for Henry to be recruited to Westish College, purely on the basis of seeing Henry fielding. Henry goes to Westish, where he is initially neglected by Mike, as Mike, as well as being the baseball captain is also the (American) football captain and quarterback. Henry struggles to fit in though he is given a room to share – with Owen, a gay baseball player who is almost never in his room but with his lover. However, once football season is over, Mike Schwartz is back and starts working on training Henry. Henry is worked very hard, in order to develop him into a batter as well as a first-class fielder. The plan works very well and Henry gradually becomes the star of the team.

There are numerous sub-plots going on at the same time. The major influence on this novel is Moby Dick. This is partially because of the philosophy behind the book – the obsessive pursuit of something which is very difficult to obtain. However, it is also because of the vague connection of Westish College to Melville. A student called Guert Affenlight, who was studying biology and was the college’s starting quarterback, had a job working in the college library. He enjoyed reading the books and, on one occasion, found a manuscript between two old magazines in the library’s bowels. The manuscript was the text of an unknown lecture Melville had given at the college. The manuscript inspired young Affenlight and he started reading his way through US literature. After working as a biologist and trying to write a novel, he persuaded the professor to whom he had shown the Melville manuscript to help him get into Harvard’s doctoral programme in literature, where he did very well. He wrote a book – The Sperm-Squeezers – about the homosocial and the homoerotic in nineteenth-century American letters, which had considerable success. He also became a father, though he had already broken up with the mother of the child, a girl called Pella. When the mother died in an accident in Uganda, he brought up the child. Then, while a successful professor at Harvard, he was offered the position of president of Westish College. He still loved the place and accepted the offer. He was now sixty and a successful president. Melville had become the inspiration behind the college, with a statue in the quad. Pella had long since left, abandoning her studies to go off to San Francisco and marry an architect. Guert himself starts a gay relationship with a student. This plot – his relationship with the student and with his daughter – is a key part of the novel, as is the life of Mike Schwartz.

However, the focus is on Henry and how, with his fielding and, now, thanks to Mike Schwartz, his batting, the Westish team, perennial losers, become winners. Henry’s personal and academic life are also a key component but it is his baseball that we are drawn to – the philosophy behind it (covered in a book by the legendary (and fictitious) St Louis Cardinal shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez called, of course, The Art of Fielding), the ordinary boy makes good story and Henry’s gradual success, followed by his crisis of confidence and succession of mistakes which, we know, will be somehow corrected. Henry’s success is defined by what Aparacio Rodriguez calls thoughtless being, i.e. acting instinctively, rather than thinking things through, which might be called the American Way of Doing Things. Henry is a likeable young man, not conceited, not overly ambitious just a superb baseball player, combined with an everyman ordinariness. It does, more or less, work, as Harbach tells his story well but, somehow, I feel that it lacks that something that makes it particularly special. Henry is perhaps too ordinary, almost too good to be true, even when he goes off the rails, and the outcome is fairly predictable, at least in general items, if not the specific details, though it does have its Melvillean quirk. But, ultimately, it helps to show that if you want to write a sports novel which delves into the or, at least, a philosophy of life, baseball should be your chosen sport.

Publishing history

First published 2011 by Little, Brown