Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding was the book that I kept threatening to read all year long. (Recent Example) I don’t know why it took so long to get around to, but it definitely lives up to the hype.
The novel takes place largely over a single school year at Westish College, a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. The main character is Henry a once-in-a-lifetime shortstop of almost limitless potential. Henry was “discovered” by Schwartz, the captain of Westish’s baseball team. Schwartz drives Henry to achieve the dream that they both share, to play major league baseball, but only Henry has the talent to realize. Woven into Henry’s story are the lives of Owen, Henry’s roommate and openly gay teammate, Guert Affenlight, the school’s president, and his daughter Pella. Their stories intertwine, sometimes in completely unexpected ways. You know what — that’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot. You’re better off diving in and letting the story surprise you.
The Art of Fielding is also the title of a book within the book. Written by a famed (fictional) St Louis Cardinal’s shortstop, it is Henry’s bible. The Art of Fielding is a collection of Zen-like koans that serve as meditations and Henry’s guide to playing his position. An example:
3. There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.
33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thougtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.
The idea that those two items would appear non-consecutively is part of the beauty. The Art of Fielding (the fake one) needs to be written, too.
The novel also weaves literary references throughout – most notably Melville’s Moby-Dick. The college features a statue of Melville in the main quad, because the author once gave a lecture at the college. As a result, the school’s athletic teams are called the harpooners. One of Henry’s teammates is named Starblind, surely a reference to the Pequod’s mate Starbuck. The college bar is named Stubb’s, another of Ahab’s mates. President Affenlight frequently references Melville, American poets, and literature. Affenlight’s favorite chapter of Moby-Dick features prominently in the book’s conclusion. Henry, the least well read, imagines himself as a sort of Ulysses in a moment of despair.
The effect of the references is to frame the novel as a Hormeric tale, an American epic, a modern-day Moby-Dick, where the chief (but not only) obsession is baseball. The five main characters struggle to learn how to be their own true selves. No mean feat. This is a fantastic novel. As a result of reading The Art of Fielding, I’ve picked up my half-read copy of Moby-Dick and have begun to press on. Next up, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby Dick to help fill in my own cognitive gaps. Any book that is not only a cracking read in its own right but sets the reader off on a journey of additional reading is about as good as it gets. The Art of Fielding will be on my year-end top 10 list (coming soon!) for certain.
Check out this interview with Harbach @ Baseball Nation ”The greatest baseball books aren’t really about baseball per se, they are simply great books that are set it in the baseball world.” Indeed.
For an example of Harbach’s writing style, check out this brilliant essay for Grantland.