Reading The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach is just plain fun. You enter a world that to many will be immediately familiar—namely the small liberal arts campus. In this case, the campus is Wetish College, a venerable institution overlooking Lake Michigan.
College campuses are naturally rife with drama. As insular worlds, characters can take on larger-than-life positions. The jock. The intellectual. The sleazy professor who sleeps with his students.
This familiar trope—the worn out older person (coach, teacher, administrator)—who finds love in innocent, beguiling youth and thereupon ends up in a terrific, sometimes heart-wrenching mess is embarked upon in The Art of Fielding, but with a twist—in this case the college president, one Guert Affenlight, who has always been straight, falls for the endearing, intellectually curious Owen. I love this aspect of the book.
Why? I love it because author Harbach does not have Guert act cautiously. At all. Maybe he should considering how Guert might get fired, but instead he is just plain fired up for Owen. The way he worships every move and body part of Owen’s is reminiscent of puppy love, not the love of a “sophisticated” college president, but Guert just can’t help himself. We’ve all been there.
Harbach creates this headlong dive into lust (no matter what the consequences) with great skill.
But I should not be just talking about this part of the book. I want to talk about Henry Skrimshander and Mike Schwartz. Although the book does spend time with all the characters, at the heart of the book is the complicated, compelling relationship between Henry and Mike. And the book is about baseball, of course.
Mike Schwartz is the captain of the baseball team, a giant of a man who comes from humble beginnings. In essence, sports have saved Schwartz and he feels gratitude and even love towards his college.
When he sees Henry, a skinny high school shortstop, playing a game, he feels that he must recruit him to play for Wetish. When I say must, I mean that Mike will do anything in his power to get the wonder boy from South Dakota to come to his college, even if this is the last thing Henry has ever envisioned for himself.
But he does lure Henry to the school and goes about transforming him into the perfect shortstop with grueling, five AM runs, bucket loads of muscle building protein powders, and rallying speeches. In Henry, he creates the perfect athlete and Henry seems destined for greatness as agents and professional teams begin to show interest in the best baseball player Wetish has ever produced.
In the meantime, another story unfolds, one about the daughter of Guert, Pella Affenlight, who has left her effete husband in San Francisco to come live with her father. Although the girl arrives fragile and exhausted, with barely more than a swimsuit in her bag, she soon becomes a part of Wetish. She gets up early in the morning to do dishes in the cafeteria (a grueling job she fights her Dad over—he thinks she should just study, but she wants independence) and she begins to date the burly Schwartz, whose sturdy body and straight forward manner is in contrast with her overbearing husband.
But just as Pella gains confidence and self-awareness, Henry starts to lose it. After he makes a disastrous throw, which injures Owen, he becomes unglued, even paralyzed by thoughts of failure. What had been so natural before—throwing a ball perfectly (it was as if he were made to throw a ball perfectly)—becomes hard. Not only hard. Impossible.
As time goes on and the play-offs are near, Henry becomes worse and worse. He second-guesses himself and psyches himself out. He can’t seem to gauge when to throw the ball and when he finally does, the throws are way off.
As he begins to deteriorate (he walks off the team, feels nauseated by the smell of food and begins to take on anorexic qualities), he begins to question his very existence. Who is Henry if he’s not a baseball player? (Similarly, Schwartz is facing his own breakdown when he gets rejected from all the law schools he applies to.)
The Art of Fielding poses some interesting existential questions here. Are we all actions, or is there a “self” beyond what we do and accomplish? Do we owe it to ourselves (to society?) to do what is “natural” for us? What choices do we have? What are our so-called “destinies”?
Many books rely on fate as a vehicle; in this book we see the characters making choices. Of course in every book characters make choices, but in this book there seems to be a deliberate attention to the psychological churnings of Henry, Schwartz, Pella, Owen, and Guert. As they weave in and out of each other’s lives, we see how they influence each other, but we also see how ultimately they are responsible for their own lives.
I should warn readers who aren’t tempted by a book with lots of baseball in it that, believe me, a book about baseball is the last thing in the world I would think about reading. But, like many good books, baseball here acts as a metaphor even as real games and practices are described.
In fact, after reading the book, I want to like baseball and may even watch some games (I never thought I would write those words; credit Harbach with writing so convincingly about the game). I appreciate how he writes with such exactness about the sport.
The book not only creates a believable world out of Wetish College, it also creates a fascinating world out of baseball. Books that hinge on a specific job or locale can be fascinating as you find yourself entrenched in a world you may have never considered. This is one of the successes of The Art of Fielding. Much has been made of this book (if a lot hadn’t been made of the book, I never would have read it because I was not clamoring to read about baseball), but after reading about Harbach’s struggle with the manuscript in Vanity Fair magazine (and his subsequent huge pay-off), I wanted to get my hands on this much-talked-about book.
And then it would be easy to dismiss the book as unworthy of all the hype. But this book is good. Very good.