Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding”

What I knew going in.

HYPE: Holy hell hype. Hype hype hype. Franzen hype—Franzen blurb. Six-hundred fifty thousand smackeroos. Michael Pietsch said it was huge but familiar. A book so important it demanded an extra eBook about the book—its making; its having traveled from MFA class to (eventually) most publications’ year-end “best of” lists.

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE: Harbach is a big INFINITE JEST guy. Can’t hurt.

UNDERDOG: Overcooked media portrayal: Unemployed Harvard man sells book for a lot of money. The proper adjective in that sentence sticks out a bit, no? I mean, there are unemployed people and there are unemployed Ivy League people; the majority of both categories are probably English majors. But the latter, of course, are likely far less in number and far more marketable on the, well, market. Especially those with an MFA from the University of Virginia.

BASEBALL: A baseball book. Yes. I love baseball. And not only a baseball book, but one that hits close to home, one that deals with the mental problems of fielders; the loneliness of sport. Steve Blass. Chuck Knoblauch. Rick Ankiel. Those once-great players who suddenly and bafflingly lose it—it being not the world-class ability (lots of players turn into pumpkins overnight; the difference is those pumpkins are still in the top one percent of baseball players on earth), but remedial little league ability. Like a marathon runner who suddenly forgets how to walk; left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot.

What I know now.

THE ART OF FIELDING is the first novel by a man who might be the next great American writer. Reading it—tearing through it, putting off sleep for a few more pages, being too engrossed to get off the train and go to work—filled me with feelings I had to suppress. Critical faculties demanded more of themselves. A desire to write off every thought and every scribble in my notebook as hyperbole.

This is a great novel.

Our protagonist: Henry Skrimshander of Lankton, South Dakota. Shortstop. Lover of Aparicio Rodriguez, the author of Henry’s favorite book, an absurdly Sun Tzu-ish treatise on what it means to be a shortstop (called THE ART OF FIELDING). Incredible fielder of line-drives, ground balls, the like: Henry does not react to the ping of the bat (college baseball, despite all contrary logic, still allows the use of aluminum bats), he anticipates—a revelatory skill for an infielder.

Enrolls at Westish College. Bulks up.Goes from a wet noodle hitter to a major league prospect in three seasons. Destined for a lot of money. Maybe fame. Westish goes from also-ran to conference contender. Scouts show up. Agents call. Pressure mounts. Henry loses it. Loses the ability to throw from position six to position three on the diamond. Steve Blass syndrome, some say. A real tragedy, others mutter.

To call THE ART OF FIELDING a baseball book would be half-true, I guess. It tracks the ascent of the Division III Westish Harpooners—a fictional school on Lake Michigan in Wisconsin. It begins and ends on the diamond. It explores the idea that great athleticism is not mechanical, but romantic; of the mind and heart and soul more than the arms and legs and hands.

It’s a book about identity.  About our willingness to get comfortable and settle and fear change and back down from it. A book about dreams and their propensity to go unfulfilled: to be perfect; to get into law school; to escape to San Francisco; to balance work and love; for things to never change. In THE ART OF FIELDING, one question keeps arising for so many of the characters—Henry’s best friend Mike Schwartz, Westish College President Guert Affenlight, his daughter Pella Affenlight—if I am not X, then what am I?

It is perhaps Harbach’s greatest triumph that each of these characters are so fully realized, as they orbit around a completely and totally mysterious protagonist. Who is Henry but a fielder?

We know his habits—running stadiums at the crack of dawn and adhering to a disciplined, let’s-add-some-muscle-with-this-chalky-GNC-shit diet—and his Midwestern earnestness—evidenced by a puckered reaction to a Long Island. We know he’s really only ever comfortable on the field at position number six. We know he likes little league chatter, the kind of “hey batta batta” banter most kids abandon when they’re eleven or twelve.

We know enough about him to root for him, and that’s it, really. We have a stake in his success. We don’t know why, but we root for him. When things come tumbling down, when Henry can no longer make the routine throw to first base, we wince and want him to be the perfect fielder again.  Because if he’s not a great baseball player, what is he? He is a once-great Division III baseball player with little chance to make anything of himself beyond the shores of Lake Michigan.

And when fate intervenes and those dreams are dashed—or new dreams arise—identity crises ensue. Everyone around Henry must pick up the pieces for themselves, all while watching the fielder’s rapid descent from artful perfection to miserable failure.

For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. 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.

We know Henry wants to be perfect. They know Henry wants to be perfect. But we also know that’s not really possible. And that’s too tragic a thought to entertain—hard work and dedication and desire toward a singular end can be undone by the mind’s erroneous consideration of failure; that perfection is unattainable; that all the hard work may be, in the end, for nothing.

It sinks your heart, really.

Read the first chapter of THE ART OF FIELDING.

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