By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson
From December 5, 2011
A review I wrote for the site Reader Unboxed.
The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
Deep down, he thought, we all believe we’re God. We secretly believe that the outcome of the game depends on us, even when we’re only watching—on the way we breathe in, the way we breathe out, the T-shirt we wear, whether we close our eyes as the pitch leaves the pitcher’s hand.
The Art of Fielding has no baseball imagery on its cover. That’s important.
Keith Gessen, longtime associate of the novel’s author Chad Harbach, has written about designer Keith Hayes’ search for the right cover treatment. The book is, as Robyn Creswell wrote in the Paris Review, “a book about baseball in the same way that Moby-Dick is a book about whaling—it is and it isn’t.”
That’s a small red harpoon you see under the title. Melville, and scholarship’s love affair with him, loom over many parts of the book. At least one heart is, eventually, completely skewered in the contemporary foam of political correctness, institutional hubris, and a romantic fastball sloppily fielded.
There is some radiant writing about baseball from time to time in these 529 pages.
The coach reached into his bucket, plucked out a ball, and showed it to the shortstop, who nodded and dropped into a shallow crouch, his hands poised just above the dirt. The kid glided in front of the first grounder, accepted the ball into his glove with a lazy grace, pivoted, and threw to first. Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond. It smacked the pocket of the first baseman’s glove with the sound of a gun going off. The coach hit another, a bit harder: same easy grace, same gunshot report.
This is your first look at Henry Skrimshander. He is a near-magical prodigy on the diamond spotted by Mike Schwartz, an entrepreneurial catcher who lures the inarticulate young phenom to a small Midwestern college, Westish, home of the Harpooners.
What follows makes it hard to say whether Harbach has made all the world a field of dreams or vice-versa. With deservedly praised dexterity, Harbach walks all his players–some of whom have nothing to do with baseball—around the bases of events and relationships fully as dependent on a campus setting as they are on their proximity to Westish Field.
The “freshperson” Henry, who is transformed into a national-championship martyr, functions from a pristine naïveté that makes him a magnet to the majors’ scouts and easily the book’s most haunting character. As soon as Mike, his impossibly empowered undergraduate mentor, is required to field more than he can handle in his own sleepless sphere, Henry is adrift in dirty, shallow waters.
If you were Henry and you needed Mike you were simply screwed. There were no words for that, no ceremony that would guarantee your future. Every day was just that: a day, a blank, a nothing, in which you had to invent yourself and your friendship from scratch. The weight of everything you’d ever done was nothing.
Henry serves the author and readers as a landmark study of the natural artist/athlete, a victim of youthful obsession and adult convenience. The Art of Fielding is worth reading for this character alone, and the delivery through him of the book’s most explicit observation:
A soul isn’t something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love.
To read the full review, jump over to Reader Unboxed.