The Art of Fielding, that is. Here’s my review for this literary fiction by Chad Harbach.
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.
Henry’s fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. 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.
Two book club friends recommended this novel to me, knowing my young adult sports romance Streamline had just been published. I’m a former small college athlete and this well-written story was indeed right up my alley with its low-budget athletic departments, locker room banter, mental health issues like depression and eating disorders, and anxious, angst-ridden student-athletes. Fielding’s NCAA Division III baseball players spout poetry and write theses, deftly defying the dumb-jock stereotype.
The plot is intriguing, leading up to a wonderful NCAA championship game where it’s all on the line. Will highly-scouted shortstop Henry Skrimshander overcome his mental block and lead his team to victory? It’s tense and suspenseful, ending in a satisfying yet unpredictable manner.
I did have some trouble with the characterization of this novel. Mr. Harbach writes rich, complex characters but they didn’t grab me emotionally. The characters seem distant and aloof, like the reader’s sitting in the nose-bleed section and can’t make out their faces or expressions. Though they all suffer—particularly Henry—I didn’t find myself truly sympathizing or caring as much as I’d like.
Apparently Herman Melville once visited and praised Westish College, and the school now boasts his statue and the mascot of “Harpooners”. I don’t know about you, but reading Moby Dick in high school was sheer torture for me, and I enjoyed the subtle jabs to Melville and his novel in the story:
And over the years a thriving cult of Melvilleania had developed at the college, such that you could walk across campus and see girls wearing T-shirts with a whale on the front and lettering on the back that said, WESTISH COLLEGE: OUR DICK IS BIGGER THAN YOURS.
Mr. Harbach nailed the smelly, safe ambiance of locker rooms:
Locker rooms, in Schwartz’s experience, were always underground, like bunkers and bomb shelters. This was less a structural necessity than a symbolic one. The locker room protected you when you were most vulnerable: just before a game, and just after. 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.
The author has a deep understanding of the athletic experience, and in many ways this was an interesting read. I wish there was a sport psychologist on staff to help out these troubled athletes, but they are able to find their own way through the journey of college athletics.
See you tomorrow for my post “G is for Goodreads”!