Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is not a baseball book. It’s a college baseball book.
And that sets it apart from other sports novels, like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (a 9/11 novel about cricket fanatics in the U.S.), Karen Joy Fowler’s The Sweetheart Season (about a cereal mill’s women’s baseball team after WWII), and Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes (sort of a football novel).
Harbach’s entertaining, well-written comedy, set at Westish College, a small fictitious college in Wisconsin, traces a year in the lives of several eccentric college baseball players, who bloom into a baseball-as-art team under the fanatical coaching of their brilliant team captain, Mike Schwartz (Schwartzie), a Chicagoan orphan saved from dropping out and factory work by his high-school football coach. The ball players study philosophy, Melville, Tocqueville, and Greek. Who are these guys? At my university, jocks needed special tutoring and were usually in the news for taking drugs and other crimes. It’s refreshing to read about such an erudite crowd.
The college president, Guert Affenlight, an alumnus of Westish and Harvard, has suddenly become a baseball fan. He has fallen in love with one of the players. A famous Melvillean who discovered an obscure speech by Melville in the Westish library during his undergraduate days, Affenlight wrote an influential book on Melville which is read by the team.
And all characters are connected to Henry Skrimshander, a mythic shortstop–we swirl into borderline magic realism–who never makes an error until he accidentally hits his gay roommate and teammate, Owen, with a ball. Owen was sitting in the dugout reading when the ball knocked him out and concussed him. He has reconstructive facial surgery.
Henry, now afraid of hurting people, loses his ability to throw. And scouts are pursuing him everywhere.
Other events at the college spiral out of control as a result of this incident. Affenlight has a chance to get to know Owen at the hospital. He embarks on an affair with Owen, with whom he fell in love during conferences about the college’s environmental choices.
And Affenlight’s daughter, Pella, a brilliant high-school dropout, returns from San Francisco to Westish and decides to start college. She has an affair with Schwartzie.
This all leads to trouble, as you can imagine.
I’m not sure I completely believed in the Affenlights.
Schwartzie is my favorite character. He coaches Henry, makes him run up and down stadiums and all that other stuff, and worries that his Greek isn’t good enough. He is desperately depressed because he has applied to law school at Harvard and the other Ivy League schools and….
This is an enjoyable, very fast read. It’s a good first novel.
I am not a sports fan. I hate sports, in fact. But this book is such a page-turner that I was able to block out a sports event on the radio last weekend when we were traveling.
I am recommending this as your Thanksgiving escape book. Personally, I find Thanksgiving relaxing, but if you’re stuck basting turkey for hours and need a book you can pick up and put down between times, this will do the trick.
I’m opting for Valley of the Dolls, though.