Two chapters into The Art of Fielding, you start to think, "How can a first novel be this good?" The pace is perfect, the characters are both idiosyncratic and completely believable, and the emotions feel true throughout. Oh yeah, and there's baseball. As one of those people who thinks baseball is boring because the pitcher spends so much time on the mound trying to psych out the batter, I was hoping that Chad Harbach would convince me otherwise. And he absolutely did. I could see Henry's grace on the field and hear Schwartzy's knees creaking. I rooted for the Harpooners during games, but even more in the locker room, on the practice field, and during workouts.
The story begins with Henry Skrimshander, a puny high-school shortstop who can't afford college. However, he's extraordinarily good at baseball, a natural with his glove. Henry's feelings about baseball are exemplified by a book he's read too many times to count: The Art of Fielding, by the record-breaking shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez. It's a Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for baseball, more concerned with the Zen of the game than the details. Henry meets catcher Mike Schwartz at a summer league game, and Schwartz pulls some strings to get Henry into Westish College, where the team has been crappy forever. Schwartz tells Henry he's going to turn it around. He spends much of the rest of the book making Henry his disciple, making him run up and down the stairs of the stadium, do pullups, lift weights, and learn to bat with power. Henry thrives under Schwartzy's tutelage.
In this literary novel, whose characters care about the truth behind sports, books, and the most powerful human emotions, this turning point offers an opportunity to watch individuals respond to events out of their control. In the hands of a gifted writer like Harbach, it reads like this: "Affenlight felt something young well up in his chest, a thudding pain interspersed with something sweet, as if he were being dragged by an oxcart through a field of clover."
If you've read Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, you know what a pompous, obviously-researched-by-talking-with-hip-confused-young-adults (but funny, vibrant, and at times brilliant) college novel is like. Once you've read The Art of Fielding, you'll know what it's like when a writer narrates a college and a baseball team so honestly you can't believe it's not real.
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