Friday, January 27, 2012

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: A review

Baseball has been used by some very good writers as a metaphor for life. It is an apt metaphor. Baseball, like life, is a game that teaches one to deal with failure. The best hitters fail about two-thirds of the time. Pitchers are charged with either success or failure as reflected in their won/loss record. They are the only team member whose stats clearly reflect the success or failure of the team. 

It is a team sport, but when playing defense, there are no team errors. Any individual player who fails to catch a catchable ball or who throws errantly is charged with an error. It is the stat by which fielders are judged. That is a fact which Henry Skrimshander, a shy, small-town kid from North Dakota, knows, and it is why he works relentlessly every day of his life from childhood to master the art of fielding. It is why he has committed to memory the book of instruction written by his hero, Aparicio Rodriguez, "The Art of Fielding." The book contains such Zen-like statements as: 
To field a groundball must be considered a generous act and an act of comprehension. One moves not against the ball but with it. Bad fielders stab at the ball like an enemy. This is antagonism. The true fielder lets the path of the ball become his own path, thereby comprehending the ball and dissipating the self, which is the source of all suffering and poor defense.
Henry's diligence has paid off. As a high school senior, he plays in a game where he is noticed by the catcher of the opposing team, Mike Schwartz. Schwartz recognizes in Henry something special in the art of baseball. He sees in him a dedication that matches his own and he determines to recruit him for his college team, Westish College, a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Michigan. 

Henry goes to Westish where he becomes a roommate of Owen Dunne, who introduces himself to Henry as his gay, mulatto roommate. Owen himself has been brought to Westish as the winner of a prize given by the college. He is from California and is an extremely self-possessed young man whose baseball teammates give him the nickname "Buddha." 

Owen's cause had been championed by the college's president Guert Affenlight, a Melville scholar, lifelong bachelor, and father of an estranged daughter, Pella. Guert is 6o years old, almost 61, and his life has settled into a comfortable routine, which is now disrupted by the return of his daughter who is ending an unfortunate teenage marriage. At the same time, Guert is falling hopelessly and inappropriately in love. 

Pella, on her return to Westish, meets Mike at a very low point in his life. As she struggles to make sense of things and to get her life on track, she begins a new relationship with him. 

The Art of Fielding is told through these five characters: Henry, Mike, Owen, Guert, and Pella. This is a story where baseball is not just a metaphor for life, but, in a very real sense, it is life. It is told primarily through the experiences of Henry and his relationships to the other four characters. Henry achieves brilliance in his baseball career at Westish. For more than two years, he is perfect, but as he threatens to break the fielding record held by his hero, Aparicio Rodriguez, it all goes horribly wrong. How these five characters - these five friends - deal with the errors that follow, how those errors shape their lives and reveal their essences is the heart of this excellent book. A book which is about baseball, yes, but not really baseball as a metaphor. It is more about baseball as life. 

The reader doesn't have to have a love and appreciation of the game of baseball to get this book, but I think such an appreciation does deepen one's experience with it. I love baseball and I love this book. This was Mr. Harbach's first novel and it was released to virtually universal acclaim last year. The acclaim is well-deserved. He has gone straight to the "bigs," bypassing the minor leagues. It will be interesting to see what comes next in his career. 

1 comment:

  1. I need to pick this one up soon...I love baseball, I have read nothing but positive reviews, and a reading buddy has told me I must read it. I don't know why I haven't picked it up before, as it is sitting on my TBR pile but I will rectify that shortly :)

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