"At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big-league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended."--from publisher's description.
Yes, this novel is about baseball, but before you begin to head for the exits, I want to say, this book is about so much more. Like a young John Irving, this first time author, has created a wonderful world. It is about family, friendships and finding one’s path into adulthood. It’s smart, funny and perfectly paced. A home run all the way!
The story concerns five people whose lives become intertwined at Westish College in northeastern Wisconsin. One of them, Henry, is a baseball shortstop whose hero is the fictional shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez (presumably inspired by the the real-life shortstop Luis Aparicio). In the story, Rodriguez is the author of a vade mecum on playing baseball called “The Art of Fielding,” and Henry studies it religiously, just as he has studied the play of the shortstop:
"What he could do was field. He’d spent his life studying the way the ball came off the bat, the angles and the spin, so that he knew in advance whether he should break right or left, whether the ball that came at him would bound up high or skid low to the dirt. He caught the ball cleanly, always, and made, always, a perfect throw.”
Mike Schwartz, the catcher for the baseball team, takes Henry under his wing and helps him train and refine his skills. Mike is a natural coach, and basically takes over the job: "All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? And then you told the guy that story.”
Mike and Henry become close, but each thinks that the other’s perception of his own infallibility forms the basis of their friendship. For a while though, both the friendship and the infallibility work.
Henry’s roommate at Westish is Owen Dunne, a bright, somewhat posturing and effete intellectual who also, in an out-of-character turn, is the baseball team’s right fielder. Owen self-identifies as a “gay mulatto” and one almost gets the impression that he is gay for the same reason he likes to smoke pot and sit in espresso shops reading poetry. It is important to him to be seen in all of his arty manifestations.
The Westish baseball team begins to reap the benefits of the influence of Mike and Henry, and the wins start piling up. The team is called the Harpooners (Melville became the guiding spirit of this college after an important cache of his papers was discovered in its library).
Guert Affenlight, the president of Westish, is the one who discovered the Melville papers while working on his dissertation. Guert’s daughter Pella skipped college to get married, but now she returns to Westish to get her degree. (Pella’s mother died when Pella was three.)
Together, these five characters – Henry, Owen, Mike, Guert, and Pella - come to form a tightly interlocked matrix of hope, desire, disappointment and love that drives the second half of the book, and pulls us into its web by the tendrils of emotions that wind around the matrix.
Some of Harbach’s best writing about relationships concerns those early moments when insecurity vies with excitement for the obsessions of the actors. That nervous energy is exhibited in the following scene, when Pella has slept over a male’s house, and the next morning, sees all the dirty dishes and wants to wash them, but isn’t sure about the message it will send:
"It was a nice gesture, to do somebody else’s dishes, but it could also be construed as an admonishment: ‘If nobody else will clean up this shithole, I’ll do it myself!’ In fact, some version of that interpretation could hardly be avoided. She turned off the water. Even if [they] had been dating for months, unprovoked dishwashing might be considered strange. Meddlesome. Overbearing. Unless she dirtied the dishes herself: that would be different. Then the dishes should be done, and the failure to do them might pose its own problems. But the dishes weren’t hers, and [they] weren’t dating. Therefore the doing of dishes could only seem weird, neurotic, invasive.”
And that buildup of awe and happiness that comes with new love is shown ably in this observation: "Everything that floated through his life’s width…seemed loaded with such poignance that he found himself on the verge of country-music tears…”
Love ties the characters together, yes, but baseball provides an even sturdier glue. Schwartz sees baseball as a test of individual glory – not a melee sport dependent on team coordination, but as: "...a series of isolated contests. Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball. … When your moment came, you had to be ready, because if you fucked up, everyone would know whose fault it was. What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?”
But for Schwartz, whose métier was coaching baseball, the contests were all vicarious: "He had no art to call his own. He knew how to motivate people, manipulate people, move them around; this was his only skill.”
He claims he’s not sick of coaching itself, yet he "just didn’t want to wake up in twenty years and see behind him a string of lives he’d changed, stretching out endlessly, rah rah go team, while he himself stayed exactly the same. Stagnant. Ungreat. Still wearing sweatpants to work. He who cannot, coaches.”
T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock’s lament could easily have been Schwartz’s:
"No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown."
Evaluation: Harbach takes on the existential challenge of the insignificance of man, expressed via the metaphor of playing baseball. Even as his characters struggle to make a mark in the world, most must resign themselves to the more common outcome of a quotidian life of mechanical repetition. Can love and companionship make it bearable? That’s the question the book leaves you to ponder, long after you turn the last page.
For amazing shortstop Henry Skrimshander, it's his Bible. Henry is a small-town high school senior discovered by (mythical) Westish (northern lakefront Wisconsin) College Harpooners baseball team captain Mike Schwartz in a summer league. The other main characters in the book are Henry's gay mulatto college roommate and teammate, Owen; the college president, Affenlight (who falls in love with Owen); and Affenlight's daughter, Pella (who falls for Mike). The story is told from the point of view of each of these five characters.
Henry's never made a fielding error in a game, but the first time a throw goes awry (on page 69), it sets in motion the events of the remaining 443 (!) pages of the book.
I thought the characters were wonderful and very well-developed - even some of the minor ones, such as the other teammates, and the college dining hall supervisor. Yes, it is a baseball novel, but it's more a college coming-of-age story. I thought the ending was a little weak, though, with the scene in the cemetery a bit over-the-top. Still, I'd recommend this book, especially for book clubs with both male and female members.
© Amanda Pape - 2013
Oh my, I was hooked from the first paragraph. It is beautifully written, deeply moving and actually gave me an appreciation of baseball that I did not see coming. There is the whole "game as a metaphor for life" thing but it is so subtle and there is so much more. Harbach weaves the relationships of player, parent, child, mentor, lover and loyal friends so beautifully that the whole book was enjoyable and moving and I would fervently recommend it to anyone who loves a gently told story with characters that they will come to love and respect. I was sure that each character had stumbled into a tragic circumstance that he/she would never be able to recover from. And yet Harbach managed to resolve each crisis perfectly. Not always happily, but perfectly! Loved this book.
Henry arrives at Westish with little more than his favourite book, The Art of Fielding, a kind of Art of War for baseball and, like The Art of war, it is not only a guide to baseball but to living a good life. With his love of the game, his enthusiasm, and his prodigious talent, Henry almost single-handedly turns around the fortunes of Westish's mediocre and losing team. He is clearly destined for greatness, that is, until a clumsy throw hits a fellow player and Henry loses his confidence.
The Art of Fielding is, of course, about baseball but it is also about friendship and love, about sin and guilt, contrition and redemption, loss and grief, in short, the human condition.
It is also an homage to the literary genre which, it could be argued, shares much with baseball. Both are considered by many to be too slow, too cerebral, too boring but for those whose who share a love for both, there is true art and beauty to be found.
The Art of Fielding is Chad Harbach's debut novel and what a debut it is! No, it's not perfect - it drags at times and it is more than a little improbable at times - but it is brilliant. Yes, it is a book about so much more than baseball but, in the end, it is a book about baseball and it is definitely a home run hit right out of the park.
The structure window of the novel depends on a metaphor of college baseball. Mr. Harbach maintains his subtle approach in this window and does not let it overwhelm the motives of the characters. The reader is able to experience the lives of the people, in a way that is more than vicarious. It becones a uniquely direct, personal relationship. Paradoxically, if the reader does not like baseball, she will enjoy the novel because of its context. The main characters accept and violate social rules and limits with much more freedom than they have as ballplayers on a beautifully groomed ball field. But, in the game and in life it is internal art that allows the characters to go beyond the other and self-imposed fences.
The style of the writing is not seamless, but rather stitched tightly like a baseball with red thread. The transition from descriptions by an omniscient narrator to observations and thoughts of the voices of individual characters and back again makes the reader forget she is reading. There is not a single chapter or page where the reader is caught short with an awkward connection. Very few sentences break ranks except statements about our environment that seem to come directly from the author. These sentences are truly few and far between, but they do break the artistic spell very briefly for the reader when they occur.
The dominant theme of the novel is the unfolding from within the individual of awareness of the personal art of life. The key to this unfolding is for the person to give maximum effort to a treasured activity without the restrictions pressed upon her by society and self. Of course, the risks of loss of stability and persistent self-deflation are very frightening. Each of us must choose to knuckle under illusory limits or embark on a journey into internal "landlessness," the only place where honest self-assessment occurs.
The story is like Pat Conroy's novel, South of Broad, in its elements of emotional attachment of the characters, the impulsiveness of youthful activities, the drama of sports, the coming of age of young adults, the life review of older characters, the sexual interactions that are secondary to the search for love, and dominance, submission, and freedom of will. It is a very exciting story that the reader will want to savor rather than rush through. It is easy to rush because the novel is so well-written that you forget you are reading. That is the same experience I had when I first read Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises when I was an adolescent.
This is an excellent first novel by Chad Harbach and I am looking forward to reading his next novel. The Art of Fielding would be an excellent film
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.
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.
On beauty, I loved this one:
“Owen lifted his eyebrows in reply. He looked beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, in the way that a shattered dynastic vase might be beautiful, the ivory pieces unearthed and glued so the delicate plum filigree once again retraced its original circling paths after a lapse of centuries.”
“Doctors were the most self-righteous people on earth, Schwartz thought. Healthy and wealthy themselves, surrounded by the sick and dying – it made them feel invincible, and feeling invincible made them pricks. They thought they understood suffering because they saw it every day. They didn’t understand shit.”
“Henry knew better than to want freedom. The only life worth living was the unfree life, the life Schwartz had taught him, the life in which you were chained to your one true wish, the wish to be simple and perfect. Then the days were sky-blue spaces you moved through with ease. You made sacrifices and the sacrifices made sense.”
“What a strange thing love was! You met an excruciatingly beautiful creature, one who seemed too well formed to have sprung from sperm and egg and that whole imperfect error-prone process – and then you met his mother.”
On love in old age:
“He didn’t want to know how his touch felt to Owen – cold and stale, no doubt. No wonder he’d finally fallen in love – now that he had so little warmth of his own to give. He truly was fool.”
“But if Own did want him – if Owen wanted his aging, pasty, great-for-sixty, okay-for-forty, unthinkable-for-twenty body, which was seeming more unlikely by the second – then would he want Owen’s body in return? He thought he did, had fantasized about it, sort of, but compared to the sharp lines of that photograph his fantasies were all caresses and quiet confidences, sweetness and abstraction.”
On meaning in life:
“There were no whys in a person’s life, and very few hows. In the end, in search of useful wisdom, you could only come back to the most hackneyed concepts, like kindness, forbearance, infinite patience. Solomon and Lincoln: This too shall pass. Damn right it will. Or Chekhov: Nothing passes. Equally true.”
On pain, this actually from Viktor Frankl:
“’The pain is like a gas,’ counseled Schwartz. He supervised from a metal folding chair, a newspaper in his lap and towel-wrapped ice bags on both knees. ‘It expands to fill up whatever space you give it. So we shouldn’t fear pain. A lot of it doesn’t hurt much more, or take up more psychic space, than a little bit. Viktor Frankl.’”
“The locker room protected you when you were most vulnerable: just before a game, and just after. (And halfway through, if the game was football.) Before the game, you took off the uniform you wore to face the world and you put on the one you wore to face your opponent. In between, you were naked in every way. After the game ended, you couldn’t carry your game-time emotions out into the world – you’d be put in an asylum if you did – so you went underground and purged them. You yelled and threw things and pounded on your locker, in anguish or joy. You hugged your teammate, or bitched him out, or punched him in the face. Whatever happened, the locker room remained a haven.”
“It always saddens me to leave the field. Even fielding the final out to win the World Series, deep in the truest part of me, felt like death.”
“When Affenlight caught the flu or fell into one of his grim moods, she would frown and ignore him. He’d dismissed this as a lack of sympathy, and even perhaps a form of stupidity, but maybe it was wisdom instead. Had he learned – would he ever learn – to discard the thoughts he could not use? It remained an open question, how much sympathy love could stand.”
“Why was the younger person always the prize, the older person always the striver? Ever since adolescence Pella had been gathering experience in the role of the younger person, the clung-to one, the beloved. That was the idiot hopefulness of humans, always to love what was unformed. Really, it made no sense. What were the old hoping the young would become? Something other than old? It hadn’t happened yet. But the old kept trying.”
Lastly this bit of repartee, which was amusing to me:
“’I was wondering whether you were free tonight.’
‘Free? Heavens, no. After a cappella practice I’ll be volunteering down at the soup kitchen while I finish my paper on the theme of revenge in Hamlet. Then my sorority has a mixer with the Alpha Beta Omegas, my bulimia support group is getting together for dessert, and after that I have a date with the captain of the football team.’
‘I’m the captain of the football team.’
There was a long pause.
‘Oh. Well, in that case. What time can you pick me up.’”
I liked this novel. The problem is, though, that I should have loved this novel. As a lifelong baseball fan who has spent his entire career teaching at the university level, I am something of a soft touch when it comes to reading well-written versions of either sports stories or campus novels and 'The Art of Fielding' constitutes both. Indeed, the author tells an engaging tale that provides enough details and nuances to resonate with true fans while not requiring a level of zeal and commitment that might alienate readers who are not obsessed with the game. Conversely, I found only Mike and Henry to be fully developed as characters—two of the other protagonists were almost comically stereotypical—and some of the plot devices (e.g., the relationship between Pella and Henry) employed were as clumsy as they were implausible. Finally, at over 500 pages, the book felt bloated—I suspect it could have been about 100 pages shorter without losing much continuity.
In summary, then, this is a good novel but not a great one. Chad Harbach’s writing style has been compared to that of John Irving and it is easy to see why: Both authors create sprawling coming-of-age stories that make copious use of “sports as a metaphor for life” references. However, Harbach is not yet in that class; there is a seamlessness to Irving’s story-telling that is missing here, particularly in the last third of the book. Nevertheless, he is a very talented writer and this is his debut effort. I will look forward to reading his next work.
Good writing though. He was lucky to have it make such a splash.
And I really, really liked it. Sure, there was lots of baseball in it, and I learned a few things about the game that I could have gone through life quite nicely never knowing. But the book was about people. Flawed people who were strong and weak, confident and insecure, sometimes right and sometimes wrong, but above all, doing their best to be good people, sometimes failing.
Perhaps this is not a book for the homophobic but it not about gay people; it is about relationships of all sorts. Gay is part of that. It is written without too much flourish, just a straight telling of the story, yet manages to have just the right amount of nuance. It made me want to listen on and on.
It's hard to describe the plot of this book without giving too much away, but it's not the plot of this book that makes it one of the best that I've read this year. The story of Henry and the others is well-told, but it is the way that Harbach uses these specific events to explore bigger issues - issues of perfection and error, issues of identity and relationship, issues of love in its many forms - that really blew me away. Harbach writes in a straightforward and honest voice (a bit reminiscent of Richard Russo, perhaps?), a voice that I hope we hear more from.
The setting is Westish College, a liberal arts college in Wisconsin, and the stories of the main characters all seem to hinge a bit by the fluke errant throw of Henry Skrimshander. This throw involves, in short order: Owen, Henry’s gay Mulatto roommate who was busy reading, and didn’t see the ball about to strike him in the face, Henry’s mentor- teammate, Mike Schwartz, who can’t believe he has witnessed an error, the college’s president Guert Affenlight who will take all too much interest in the health of the stricken student and Guert’s daughter Pella, who has fled her marriage and finds herself in the middle of all of the above – in more ways than one.
Harbach seems to pay tribute to John Irving, both in the use of sports narrative and in the effective way he combines several stories told from several points of view related to a particular time and event. Maybe even Owen’s name is a kind of homage. But luckily for me, I loved many of Irving’s novels and very much enjoyed spending time with Harbach’s story. It’s not often that both sports and literature can coexist effectively but I applaud the author for his efforts here. The Phillies didn’t win, but it was nice to extend the season with the victories of the Westish Harpooners
I never expected to get totally blasted by the simple power of his characters and carefully chosen prose.
The last book that made me feel so emotionally spent was Infinite Jest, which I struggled to read. I always loved DFW, but I often resented how hard he made me work to understand him. Almost like getting through Ulysses for the first time... It makes you feel like you are in an elite club.
Harbach doesn't put the reader through the struggle. A book does not have to be difficult to read to be stunning fiction. For me, that is the beauty of this book.
The novel focuses on several characters associated with Westish College, a tiny liberal arts school located in northern Wisconsin. Mike Schwartz is the baseball team’s catcher and acknowledged leader who stumbles upon a high school shortstop with great fielding skills and an uncanny work ethic. Schwartz decides that this young man, one Henry Skrimshander, would be a perfect fit for Westish and manages to recruit him for the school. Already on the team is Owen Dunne, a light-skinned black player who just happens to be Henry’s gay roommate.
Westish is a strange little school, but many of those who pass through it form strong emotional bonds to the place. Its president, Guert Affenlight, for instance, has given up a position at Harvard University in order to come back to Wisconsin to head his alma mater, and his daughter Pella will seek shelter there upon the breakup of her marriage.
At the heart of the story is Henry’s run at a record setting number of errorless games at shortstop – a record currently owned by his boyhood idol Aparicio Rodriguez. As the record setting game approaches, Henry begins to think too much about the streak and very suddenly develops a case of Steve Blass disease. (Avid baseball fans will remember Blass as the Pittsburg Pirate pitcher that inexplicably lost his ability to throw a baseball accurately and, as a consequence, was forced to retire from the game.) Henry’s personal unraveling coincides, and perhaps influences, a similar unraveling of the lives of those closest to him: Guert, Mike, Owen, and Pella.
Chad Harbach’s writing often reminds of the novels of John Irving. Harbach’s love, and knowledge, of baseball is reminiscent of Irving’s relationship to college wrestling. Both writers delight in strangely-named oddball characters, and both are willing to use whatever number of pages it takes to explore fully the story they want to tell (517 pages, in this case). Although The Art of Fielding works well, it does not manage to live up to the huge amount of pre-publication hype it generated. Building the expectations of readers to an unreasonable level is a dangerous game – and The Art of Fielding suffers the consequences.
Rated at: 3.5