Friday, March 16, 2012

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

It's been a long time since a novel engrossed me so much that I stayed up late into the night to finish it. And on a weekday, too. But that was the case with The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.

The Art of Fielding has gotten a lot of love since its publication last year; some are asking whether it is the next great American novel. My opinion? It has many of the ingredients to endure in literature, and incorporates ideals and experiences ubiquitous in American culture: baseball, college life, striving for perfection, utter failure, friendship, courtship. Whether these elements will prove to be enough, only time will tell.

The novel focuses on the lives of five individuals at the fictional Westish College in Wisconsin: Henry Skrimshander, a scrawny but intensely gifted shortstop; Mike Schwartz, a born leader and coach who becomes Henry's mentor and best friend; Owen Dunne, Henry's brilliant and organized roommate; Guert Affenlight, the college president struggling with his feelings for a student; and Pella Affenlight, the president's daughter, running away from a constricting marriage and hoping to start afresh at her father's beloved institution.

Henry, Mike, and Owen all play for the Westish baseball team. Mike, a year ahead of the other two, discovers Henry at a summer league game before his sophomore year at Westish. When he finds out that Henry has no plans to play college ball (his scrawny build has everyone assuming he's a worthless player), he immediately recruits him to Westish where he is trying to build up the athletic programs without scholarships, fancy amenities, or any sort of successful record. Henry's overjoyed at the chance to continue playing baseball. By his junior season, Henry, following Mike's advice, has become stronger not only defensively, but offensively as well. He gets hits in every game and has not once, in the two and a half years he's played at Westish, made a fielding error. He's poised to tie and then break his idol, Aparicio Rodriguez's record of errorless games.

Henry strives for perfection. And he achieves it for a long time, which makes the sting of failure even stronger when it comes. Schwartz, too, wants perfection. He puts pressure on himself to be everything to everybody who needs him, tests his own limits and then breaks them, and then does it all over again. When Schwartz comes face to face with his own failure, he bitterly resents Henry's  successes. Pella has been down the road to success and back again and tries to convince both Henry and Schwartz that perfection is not only unattainable, it's overrated.

The strongest aspect of The Art of Fielding is definitely the characters. Henry alone is a masterpiece of a literary character. His journey throughout the novel - a journey that is emotional, physical, and psychological - is alternately heart-warming and heart-wrenching. His robotic tenacity, his gifted fielding, his laughable naivety, his complex mental block - all characteristics that Henry puts on then painfully sheds as he struggles to find himself. Schwartz is a character the reader gets to know slowly. In the beginning, we see Schwartz mostly through Henry's eyes and, like Henry, admire his strong and competent personality, his almost god-like aura. As the story progresses, we see more and more of his flaws - by the end of the novel, he's just an ordinary guy.

Now that I think about it, both Henry and Schwartz start out with a flies-in-the-eyes view of the other. Schwartz's tunnel vision centers around Henry's amazing fielding talents, and Henry idolizes Schwartz for his boldness and strength. Not only does each character work to achieve perfection in himself, but each also blindly creates that perfection in the other. Looking at it that way, the fall out is inevitable.

Owen is an interesting character. He's witty - his one-liners often providing comic relief throughout the story. At the same time, he's very guarded, emotionally. As readers, I don't think we get a true picture of the real Owen until the final game toward the end of the novel. Until then, he hides his emotions behind a wall of charm and wit - the kind of guy you love to hang out with, but you're never quite sure where you stand with him.

Another interesting aspect of Harbach's book is the way he shamelessly blends real life and fiction. To be honest, I'm not quite sure how I feel about it. For example, Harbach takes a real life, very famous writer, Herman Melville, and places him in a fictional place, Westish College, giving a moving speech, no less. What's more, Harbach actually quotes from the fake speech by the real writer given at the fake college. Can he do that? Attribute a fake quotation to a real person within a fictional story? One can argue that in the world of the novel, Melville did write that speech, but Harbach makes the world of the novel so resemble the real world that things get a little confusing. But maybe that's part of the magic. Harbach has created a world within his novel that's relatable, but still unfamiliar enough that we want to pay attention. We know about baseball legends, but we don't know Aparicio Rodriguez. We know small, private liberal colleges (at least I do, seeing as how I went to one), but we don't know Westish College.

I know I haven't quoted from the book much (or at all) in this post, but stay tuned as I share various quotes - on everything from writing to reading to, of course, baseball - in the next few days. Just to let you know, I'm saving the really good baseball quotes for opening day.

The Art of Fielding is an impressive novel, made even more so by the fact that it is Harbach's first. I recommend it without reservation.