Although Chad Harbach’s debut novel has a contemporary setting, sprinkled with up-to-date sex and drugs, it also feels old-fashioned. In a good way. It encourages you to kick off your shoes, tuck up your feet, and settle in for a good read.
Centered around the amazing prowess of a college baseball team’s shortstop, The Art of Fielding examines success and failure as well as romantic and familial entanglements. I started to write “love,” but I’m not sure there are any individuals here who truly know how to love. They do obsess about a lot, though, from baseball to pills to crushes.
Yet the author himself seems to care about his characters; there’s a generosity in how he describes them—both externally and internally—and chronicles their actions. He takes the time to get all the details just right. And Harbach’s tone rings true for each character, even when he allows him (or her) an uncharacteristically profound reflection—as when the shortstop ponders:
What would he say to her, if he was going to speak truly? He didn’t know. Talking was like throwing a baseball. You couldn’t plan it out beforehand. You just had to let go and see what happened. You had to throw out words without knowing whether anyone would catch them. You had to send your words out where they weren’t your words anymore. It felt better to talk with a ball in your hand, it felt better to let the ball do the talking. But the world, the nonbaseball world, the world of love and sex and jobs and friends, was made of words.
Although going to class occupies little of the characters’ time, the novel is set at Westish College, a private school in northern Wisconsin; there’s just enough academe to qualify The Art of Fielding as a campus novel (one of my favorite sub-genres). Westish has improbably linked itself with Herman Melville since the 1970s, when Guert Affenlight (then a student, now college president) discovered a valuable Melville document in the library. Melville’s statue dominates the quad, and the school’s teams were re-dubbed the Harpooners. Harbach underscores the connections: the star shortstop is Henry Skrimshander (that is, an engraver of whale ivory); the team’s pitcher is Starblind, a nod to Captain Ahab’s first mate Starbuck.
If I’d been a different kind of English major—the kind who loved Moby Dick more than Middlemarch—no doubt I would find more allusions and analogies. Here’s a sweet reference, though, that also demonstrates Harbach’s attention to his craft, his willingness to spend time on the book’s writing, and not just on the bones of the story:
The word for what a chair should do had been escaping his mind: swivel. Melville had once called America a seat of snivelization; what Affenlight wanted was a seat of swivelization.
I’ve been underwhelmed by some of this year’s bestsellers, but The Art of Fielding was a fine book to spend some time in. Not earth-shattering. Not avant-garde. But a dense, well-written novel, the kind that—75 pages from the end—still kept me reading (not skimming) and wondering how it would end.