Quick thoughts: It’s not perfect, but this literary sports novel has enough heart to make up for its shortcomings.
The Art of Fielding had been on my reading list for a little while, but there were a few issues that kept nudging it to the bottom of the pile. First, it seemed to suffer from flash-in-the-pan syndrome. Everybody seemed to be unanimously hailing it as the best novel of 2011, and then it just vanished. I’ve seen that scenario play out often enough that it’s cause for concern. A second strike against it was the sports theme. I like a good sports novel, but it’s usually an exception for me. It’s the rare author who can rise above the tired clichés to create something unique and interesting. I have to admit that the title didn’t exactly win me over either, providing a trifecta of excuses to keep putting it off despite some lingering interest.
Considering how long I procrastinated, it came as quite a surprised to me that I enjoyed it so much. The story hinges on the character of Henry Skrimshander, a small kid with an outsized passion for baseball. His preternatural skill defies the expectations of scouts conditioned to look for something more physically imposing, and you can’t help but cheer for this kid fighting an uphill battle just to play the game he loves . It’s a time-worn formula of triumphing against the odds, but Harbach puts a unique spin on his telling, dodging the bullet of tired clichés that I was admittedly expecting. It’s not often that I’m on the edge of my seat while reading a book. With The Art of Fielding, I was utterly absorbed. You couldn’t predict which way the story would go or where a character arc would lead, and the passion was contagious.
Despite the obvious and pervasive emphasis on baseball, The Art of Fielding is very much a literary novel, packing in all the trappings one would expect from modern fiction. The Art of Fielding is actually a book within a book – a Zen Buddhist manual on baseball that riffs on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War – and Westish College, the fictional school where Skrimshander plays, is loaded with references and homages to Herman Melville. There’s also the fairly standard soul-searching twist of fate, side-trips of agonizing introspection, and even (in what’s beginning to feel like a prerequisite for serious novels nowadays) a gay subplot.
All that literary stuff AND a sports novel, you ask? Well, that’s the idea in theory, but the execution isn’t always so seamless. At times it feels as though Harbach is trying to paint a mural onto a postage stamp. There is just too much going on to fully develop any one theme or idea, and the result is that things tend to get lost in the shuffle. Even something as central as baseball is occasionally relegated to irrelevance as “serious” themes are explored. Having said that, though, it’s not something I really noticed when the story was in full swing. It was only in retrospect, when trying to piece together the story elements into a cohesive whole, that the themes and allusions began to seem less than the sum of their parts.
While it might not be a perfect novel, it’s certainly got heart. In many ways, it’s a little like Henry Skrimshander himself: something that seems below the mark, but has such a keen eye for what matters that it eclipses any shortcomings. It’s that person who seems so ordinary in a photo, yet so compelling in real life. The character inside threatens to burst out at every seam, and you can’t help but be won over by some sort of ephemeral life force. So long as you’re not expecting the great American novel — or even the best novel of 2011, for that matter — The Art of Fielding is a great choice if you’re looking for something arty that dishes out an equal amount of whimsical fun.
Audiobook notes: Holter Graham’s narration really plays on the muted emotions and the feeling of inertia that accompanies a few of the character arcs. It serves well to set the artistic tone which the book seems to be striving for, although there are times when the combination of voices in conversation sounds staged and hokey. Overall, though, this production works quite well.
College President Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry’s gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners’ team captain and Henry’s best friend, realizes he has guided Henry’s career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert’s daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.
As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process, they forge new bonds, and help one another find their true paths.
Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth, The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment – to oneself and to others.
Chad Harbach grew up in Wisconsin and was educated at Harvard and the University of Virginia. He is a cofounder and coeditor of n+1. - See more at: http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/authors/chad-harbach/#about