I need to thank my Reading Roulette voters because I loved The Art of Fielding.
I REALLY loved this book.
Despite being my last read of 2014, it was my best book of the year without question. It reminded me of why I love to read novels, how engulfed in them I can become, how utterly invested in the characters and how bereft I can feel when they are over.
The Art of Fielding is a very readable book in an almost old-fashioned way. Harbach seems to want to simply tell a good story, with fully imagined believable characters that engrosses and entertains. He has done so – and in doing so breathes new life into the well worn tale of sport as metaphor for our hopes and dreams, in this wonderful, warm novel.
Henry Skrimshander has a talent for playing short stop that borders on the genius. His bible is The Art of Fielding, a book written by his hero baseball player Aparicio Rodriguez. He is newly arrived at Westish College in the Mid-West, a liberal arts facility with an ailing baseball team, The Harpooners, it is hoped he can turn around. Like any good shortstop, Henry is the centre of the story around which a small cast of characters revolve. Mike Schwartz, Henry’s mentor and coach is the heart and soul of the baseball team but is battling sports injuries and applications to law school. Henry’s clever, gay roommate and fellow team member Owen Dunne is harbouring a secret crush which could jeopardise his future. College president and Melville scholar Guert Affenlight is falling in love with exactly the wrong person at the wrong time and his wayward daughter Pella has just returned to Westish in an attempt to get her life back in order following a disastrous impulsive first marriage.
There are other characters in the book, but Harbach is careful to keep the focus on these five, as their lives and fates become inextricably intertwined after one bad throw by Henry sets off a series of events none could foresee. That one bad throw plunges Henry into a state of anxiety and his baseball mojo disappears in a state of thinking and over thinking.
We all have our doubts and fragilities,” Affenlight thinks, “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.
It is as painful for the reader to watch Henry fall apart as it is for his friends. Possibly seeing themselves in Henrys public plight, the other characters begin meltdowns of their own and experience their own crises of confidence that will have consequences for them all.
What makes the story so effective is that Harbach has taken a sports story and turned it on its head by focusing on the errors rather than the ideals. He captures these characters when they are all at a tipping point – so sure of what has come before but so unsure of what they need to do in the future. Like Henry, they are paralysed by the doubts that are setting in, as what they have been striving for is slipping out of their grasp, reminding them of their limitations and clouding their judgement, with sometimes devastating consequences.
Henry dreamt of a simple, focused life where training and hard work would mean that
Whatever was simple and useful remained. You improved little by little till the day it all became perfect and stayed that way. Forever.
But life, like sport doesn’t pan out that way and all the training and all the discipline is subject to chance and over analysis.
The Art of Fielding has a surprising depth of narrative which makes it so much more than a book about baseball. Baseball does feature highly and a lot of the text went over the top of my head, but Harbach grounds most of the descriptions of game play in within the emotional narrative allowing access for even a lay person like myself. The description of one match in particular read like a great thriller and built the tension to almost unbearable levels. Of baseball, Harbach writes;
You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about the Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.
If the beauty of the Human Condition can be found in baseball, then why not? What helps Harbach along with this analogy are the literary allusions that pepper the novel as a whole. It’s sometimes interesting to wonder if he loves books or baseball more, given his creation of a baseball team captain who quotes pre-match Schiller. The Melville and Moby Dick analogy looms large over The Art of Fielding, although there are references to Frost, Whitman, Dickinson and John Irving (a character called Owen, an errant baseball throw changing the course of lives). A discussion over a house sale sees a woman described as a ‘female Ricky Roma…ABC’. It’s that type of book and it would sit less easy were it not done with so much conviction.
So, in some ways it is a baseball novel, but I found it ultimately to be an elegy to love. Love of sports, of place, of literature, of a partner. Of finding where you love to be and finding a peace within that knowledge. It is a particularly good examination of male love in all its forms, from team camaraderie, to friendship and coaching and ultimately, to romantic love. Speaking to the Paris Review, Harbach said;
That was part of the original conception of the book. The Art of Fielding is in large part a book about the varieties of male friendship, from the antagonistic and the competitive to the deeply affectionate and the frankly sexual, and so Moby-Dick, taking place as it does in a very intense world of very intense men, seemed like the ideal analogue.
The narrative structure does at times mirror a little too closely the tropes of the old sports movie, where everything rests on that one last play and some of the plotting is convenient to the overall story, but this wonderful expansive book, which has an optimism and a lack of cynicism that could well be seen as old-fashioned, but is quite simply irresistible. Mike Schwartz when musing about how easy it is to be a coach says;
All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to the final triumph.
This is exactly what Harbach has done with The Art of Fielding, he has made the story epic and the result is a triumph.
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