The Art of Fielding

What do we talk about when we talk about literature? More often than not, it isn’t baseball. But when Chad Harbach talks about baseball in his remarkable first novel, The Art of Fielding, among his dream teammates are Melville, Lowell, Emerson, Eliot, Keats and Murakami; his chief game, literature. Indeed, it is nothing short of an adventure to read Harbach, an athlete and an author if ever there was one. There is something inherently physical about his writing; a muscular body that moves with a deftness and clarity as though free of itself, blessed with a transcendental gift that comes from someplace indeterminable. Sometimes spellbinding, always deeply felt and richly inventive, The Art of Fielding is pure, often ingenious, fiction.

The novel starts, naturally, watching its star shortstop and centre of gravity, Henry Skrimshander, through the eyes of his scout, Mike Schwartz. Underneath Henry’s scrawny, pretty vacant surface, Schwartz discovers a baseball god. Henry’s talent is difficult for Schwartz to articulate but absolute, nevertheless. Even Harbach can only clarify Henry’s indeterminable talent in vaguer terms, referencing Lowell: ‘Expressionless, expresses God.’ Bringing this curious deity to play for his college team, we follow Schwartz and Henry to Westish College, an illusory university located somewhere west of Lake Michigan. There, they strike up an oddly familial, co-dependent friendship and later, a fiercely competitive rivalry as Henry goes from a weedy kid with far-off baseball aspirations, living life by the Book – in this case, baseball legend, Aparicio Rodriguez’s “The Art of Fielding” – to a SuperBoost machine of repeatable success, on par with his athlete-author mentor, Rodriguez and in talks of hundred thousand dollar signings with big gun agents.

But just when he’s at the top of his game, one of Henry’s throws goes horribly wrong, landing with a thud hard enough to put his teammate sitting on the bench in hospital. Consequently, it knocks everything – Henry’s confidence, ability, passion, focus – off balance. And it’s not just Henry: it’s his meticulous, ‘gay, mulatto roommate’ and teammate, Owen, who Henry knocked out; it’s his teammates, his coach; Schwartz; Schwartz’s girlfriend, Pella; Pella’s father, the school president, Guert Affenlight: all of Westish is pulled into Henry’s despair. President Affenlight, a former womaniser, finds himself in a relationship with Owen, who plans to study in Tokyo. Schwartz can’t get into law school. Leaving behind a controlling, live-in relationship with an older man in San Francisco, Pella seeks solace and independence by cleaning up the messes she can as a minimum-wage dishwasher in the Westish College kitchen. Erstwhile, the tortured baseball star who almost had it all – and then didn’t – lags at the novel’s epicentre; all eyes are still on him, though they no longer anticipate success but rather flinch nervously, awaiting likely failure.

While Henry’s stuck in his funk, and his community of friends and teammates follow suit, Harbach remains on top form throughout. As he marches swiftly in and out of his characters’ interior lives – each as replete in their beautiful incompleteness – handling multiple narratives and composite character constructions is no juggle for Harbach, but rather like an assured game of catch among competent players in which each cradles the ball for a chapter then passes it on; a hypothetical conch among the four men and increasingly, the woman that shadows and occasionally foreshadows them, as Pella’s increasing psychological development brings Henry and Schwartz, Owen and her father – as well as her own relationships with her father and with Schwartz – together. Ending on a speculative ‘ish’, Westish is an appropriate misnomer for the location of these five – each, in some way, deeply misplaced – characters, that find home with each other on its self-involved campus.

With The Art of Fielding, Harbach establishes himself much as Henry Skrimshander on the baseball diamond. In making their way out on to their respective pitches, both are unlikely heroes: Henry, the Harpooners’ scraggy saviour; Harbach, the infallible athlete-author, as sure to score the right tone with each sure sentence. If it were possible to put Harbach’s novel anywhere – it isn’t – it would come under a rare category of art so near flawless that it defies its own principle; namely, that it is unlike baseball, which ‘was an art, but you had to excel at it [by] becom[ing] a machine’ and which wasn’t like being ‘a writer [where] you…work[ed] in private and discard[ed] your mistakes’. For Harbach, baseball unlike literature meant that ‘it wasn’t just your masterpiece’s that counted. What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability.’ But Harbach’s talent, his machinelike ability to churn such a quality out chapter after chapter, maintaining five characters’ lives and the complex narratives between them always convincingly, absorbingly and vividly, sets him apart from his own breed of writer. The Art of Fielding, albeit privately composed, is a masterpiece so exceptional it feels as though it were made in public and, in spite of its sport, every motion – on the baseball diamond and off – certainly counts. Executed with an unmatched aplomb and poise, The Art of Fielding is a confident throw in the game of literature, that lands like the winning ball to resounding victory. Writing is a sport and sport, as Harbach writes it, is a harrowing, tender, sacred art.

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