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Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The standard one-sentence assessment of sports literature
contends that "the smaller the ball, the better the book."  
As a fan, my passion is for basketball, but the great
novelists tend to avoid the hardwood, and the most famous
literary hoopsters—Rabbit Angstrom,
Swede Levov—put
their best playing days behind before they were allowed to
commandeer a major American novel.  In contrast, the tiny
balls produce a steady stream of first rate novels, whether
the sport is tennis (
Infinite Jest), cricket (Netherland) or,
preeminently, baseball.

Baseball has a long, cherished
history in American letters.  
Arnold Rothstein, who allegedly
fixed the 1919 World Series,
shows up in
The Great Gatsby
under the guise of Meyer Wolf-
sheim. Randle McMurphy battles
with Nurse Ratched over the right
to watch baseball in
One Flew
Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
.  Bobby
Thomson’s famous home run
serves as a backdrop to the
opening of Don DeLillo’s
Underworld, and the fate of
the ball itself is intertwined with the development of the
plot.  A host of major North American writers—including
Ring Lardner, Bernard Malamud, Michael Chabon, W.P.
Kinsella and Robert Coover—have drawn on baseball to
propel their novels.  In fact, when Philip Roth actually
wrote
The Great American Novel—that was the book’s
actual name—he felt compelled to focus on the great
American pastime.  

Add Chad Harbach's
The Art of Fielding to the list of first
rate baseball books.  All the familiar tropes of sports
fiction are here—small town boy makes good;  the battle
against adversaries external and internal;  a quasi-religious
celebration of the game;  the thrill of victory and the agony
of defeat.  They are, in fact, too familiar….and always in
danger of collapsing into tired clichés.  Yet Harbach’s
greatest achievement here may be in his ability to squeeze
more life out of the old storybook elements.  He uncovers
new angles, takes some surprising detours around the
bases, and ends up at a final destination that does
homage to the expected rah-rah conclusion we have come
to expect in such books, even while breaking with
convention in a host of ways, small and large.    

Henry Skrimshander is an unlikely sports hero.   He’s
undersized with only average strength and stamina.  
Frankly, he’s an even more unlikely fictional hero, without
much personality and a passive attitude to almost
everything in life.  But he does one thing with incom-
parable skill: playing shortstop, a role in which his
preternatural instincts for fielding baseballs and making
throws come to the forefront.   

Skrimshander has a role model—the legendary (and
fictional) shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez, a former St. Louis
Cardinal whose fielding skills are the stuff of legend.  
Rodriquez wrote a book called
The Art of Fielding, which
Skrimshander has read so often he has almost memorized
the entire volume.  The work is more metaphysical than
practical, and sometimes as opaque as a zen master’s
koan.

26.  The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of
the defense.  He projects his stillness and his teammates
respond.

59.  To field a ground ball must be considered a generous
act and an act of comprehension.  One moves not against
the ball but with it….

3.  There are three stages:  Thoughtless being. Thought.  
Return to thoughtless being.

33.  Don’t confuse the first and third stages….

147.  Throw with the legs.

Skrimshander’s buddy and mentor Mike Schwartz is stunned
the first time he sees the youngster’s ability demonstrated
at a no-name amateur tournament: "All his life Schwartz
had yearned to possess some single transcendent talent,
some unique brilliance that the world would consent to call
genius. Now that he’d seen that kind of talent up close,
he couldn’t let it walk away.”  Schwartz, who plays base-
ball for Westish College, recruits Skrimshander as a
teammate, and puts the shortstop through the training
regimen from hell—running bleachers, lifting weights,  
practicing drills,  taking food supplements to add bulk,
constant activity starting before dawn each day.

This transfer of the Protestant work ethic to the playing
field, the elaboration of its minutiae and masochistic
mindset, and its eventual rewards…these are all part of
what we expect from a sports novel.  But Harbach weaves
around this core story line a number of intriguing ancillary
plots pushed ahead by a fresh and quirky cast of
characters.   We encounter Guert Affenlight, who has
parlayed a chance discovery of a previously unknown
transcript of a Herman Melville lecture into a successful
academic career and is now head of Westish College.  We
follow the exploits of his daughter Pella, who gave up a
chance to attend Yale in order to run off with a married
architect, and has now returned to Westish, hoping to
recover from her depression and start her life afresh.  We
meet an unlikely cadre of baseball players, most notably
Owen Dunne, who introduces himself to Henry by saying
"I’ll be your gay mulatto roommate," and peppers his sports
talk with diction more suitable for Cicero or Demosthenes—
shouting to a teammate who has made a fine play: "You
are skilled!  We exhort you!"

Harbach sets up a series of romantic attachments—
between Mike and Pella, between Guert and Owen, and
briefly between Henry and Pella—that provide tension and
turmoil, and threaten to derail the camaraderie that has
brought the Westish Harpooners unprecedented success on
the playing field.  But the most riveting relationship in this
novel is not a love entanglement but the powerful—and
occasionally dysfunctional—bond that unites Schwartz and
Skrimshander.  The older student sees that his own playing
days will soon end, and the wear and tear on his knees
make even finishing his college career a problematic,
uncertain affair.  He channels his own ambitions through
the young shortstop, who has the potential to play in the
major leagues—even though he sees that Skrimshander's
ultimate success will eventually make Schwartz himself
unnecessary, as Henry goes on to a career where Mike can’t
follow.  Harbach is especially astute at illustrating the
psychic toll and strange physical manifestations that this
troubled relationship exerts on both players.  

Like the game of baseball itself, this novel deserves praise
for its old-fashioned virtues—the sheer joy of its
storytelling, the vivacity of its characters, the perkiness of
the dialogue, the cleverness of its asides and digressions.   
For example:

"Baseball, in its quiet way, was an extravagantly harrowing
game.  Football, basketball, hockey, lacrosse—these were
melee sports.  You could make yourself useful by hustling
and scrapping more than the other guy.  You could redeem
yourself through sheer desire.  But baseball was different.  
Schwartz thought of it as Homeric—not a scrum but a series
of isolated contests.  Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus
ball.  You couldn't storm around, snorting and slapping
people, the way Schwartz did while playing football.  You
stood and waited and tried to still your mind.  When the
moment came, you had to be ready….What other sport not
only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the
scoreboard for everyone to see?"

This is an impressive debut novel.  Even so, Harbach could
have brought this novel up another notch with a bit more
assertiveness and perhaps even a dose of unkindness.  
The influence of Jonathan Franzen can be seen in these
pages, but Franzen is far tougher on his characters than
Harbach—Franzen gives each of them a moment to shine,
but always casts harsh light on their foibles and faults.  
No one is spared in
Freedom or The Corrections, not even
the good guys, who are never entirely good (just as the
bad guys will surprise us with acts of potential redemption).  
Harbach, in contrast, wants us to love his characters—and
we do; but we might love them a little more profoundly, if
he didn't work so hard to cast them in the best possible
boys-of-summer-ish light.   

I am especially disappointed that Harbach didn't do more
with the zen master of the story, Aparicio Rodriguez.
Rodriguez’s spirit hovers over much of the book, and when
he shows up in the flesh midway through the novel, I
expected epiphanies and a decisive intervention in the plot.  
Harbach gives us just the smallest taste of this, before
shuttling this fascinating character off stage.  We never
even get the long-awaited meeting between Skrimshander
and his idol that could have—should have—been a
cornerstone scene in this novel.

But the field of American fiction, like the baseball field
itself, is not about perfection—as the baseball scouts say in
the course of this book, young talent is judged as much on
potential as performance.  Certainly, Harbach has made an
impressive start with
The Art of the Fielding. I wouldn't be
surprised if he hit it out of the park the next time around.


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of the Cool.
The Art of Fielding

by Chad Harbach
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