The Art of Fielding
The last time a book consumed me so much was Franzen’s Freedom. And there is a connection. Franzen is on the book blurb, announcing, “It’s left a little hole in my life the way a really good book will.” High praise indeed, from possibly the best American writer today.
It is a campus novel, a love story, a baseball story. A story of out-sized talent and the pressure that comes with it. A story of friendship and all the strains it can be put to. A story of love, ageless and almost deathless. I compare it to another celebrated campus novel, Eugenides’ Marriage Plot, and realize how much better a book this is.
The campus is Westish, an Eastern liberal arts college with Melville as its hero. Henry Skrimshander is the unassuming baseball star with a talent that is potentially destiny-making. Mike Shwartz is the team captain, an intelligent jock, who spots Henry’s talent and takes it upon himself to be his guide and mentor, even if it means letting his own ambitions take a back seat. Owen Dunne, Henry’s roommate and baseball team mate is the Buddha, openly gay and wise beyond his years. Guert Affenlight is the college president, handsome, scholarly and falling into an affair that could prove disastrous. Pella is his emotionally fragile daughter who comes into campus from a broken marriage and slides easily into the lives of the other four.
I have little knowledge of baseball, but Harbach makes it feel like poetry. Henry is his poet, with a talent that has Mike Shwartz musing –“All his life Shwartz 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.” But talent comes with its set of rules. The most important of which is, you never let yourself doubt it, because if you let one wrong throw bring in the first ounce of self-doubt, it’s a downward spiral all the way through. Henry’s wrong throw sets in motion a series of events that affects all the characters, throwing some relationships out of gear, starting a new one and most of all, challenging genius.
The heart of the story is the relationship between Mike and Henry. Mike needs Henry just as much as Henry needs him – to finally make sense of each one’s true calling. And just as coming of age novels often do, it takes some heartbreak and some grief to ultimately get them to that realization. There are also other interesting relationships - Pella and Mike, Pella and Henry, Owen and Henry, Owen and Guert, Guert and Pella – pairings that Harbach gets the reader deeply involved in, getting them turning the pages to get to resolutions. And resolution there is. The way real life does resolutions. Where you don’t get all that you want, but just enough to let you hope. Where there is some sourness and grief and unrequited-ness; yet there is a sweetness to it all. Harbach sure does growing up well.
This is a first novel. And Chad Harbach, has hit it out of the park, to continue with the baseball theme of the book.