There should be a Biblical saying — For if a new novel, for which the publisher has paid an enormous amount of cash, lives up to its hype, all shall considered themselves blessed — and if that novel cometh from the Midwest, homeland to Floyd Dell and Hemingway and
and Jim Harrison, then all shall be twice blessed.
This should apply to "The Art of Fielding," which Little Brown had much bruited about and whose hefty hardcover we can now hold in our hands. It's a baseball novel, meaning it's a novel from which one can extrapolate about all life on earth. It's a college novel and thus a coming of age novel. It's a novel about families, by birth and by life-choices, and a novel about how to live, how to love and how to die. It's a novel about how to read and how to write, and it's all in all the most delightful and serious first book of fiction that I have read in a while.
It mostly takes place on the campus of Westish College, a mid-level private Wisconsin school located on the western shore of Lake Michigan. An idyllic setting, because the novel takes place in baseball season rather than winter, is marked by a cast of characters so interesting and appealing that despite the weight of their problems and the depth of their desires, at any moment you expect them to break out into song and dance. Dakota-born Henry Skrimshander is a naturally gifted shortstop whom Chicagoan Mike Schwartz, Westish's star catcher, recruits for the team. 60-year-old Guert Affenlight is the literary-minded president of the college and Pella, his attractive daughter, recently separated from her older husband, has newly arrived on his dorm step from San Francisco. Owen is the gay ball player in whom Affenlight finds something more than obsession and Aparicio Rodriguez, is the retired major league shortstop who, in the form of his handbook for sport and life, "The Art of Fielding," looms large in the novel. Even the head of the college's dining hall, Chef Spirodocus, plays a part, taking Pella under his wing.
The loves, friendships, duties and betrayals, both of self and others, drive a clear and appealing plot. Will the baseball team forge its best season even as players, spectators, and sponsors alike, seem almost at any moment in the story about to go down in flames? By the last third of the book, the suspense the plot generates about human motive and fortune seems as relentless and engrossing as that of any thriller. The baseball motif highlights the characters in important ways. As catcher Mike Schwartz sees the sport, it is Homeric — quite unlike football, his other love. "Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball. You couldn't storm around, snorting and slapping people, the way Schwartz did while playing football. You stood and waited and tried to still your mind. When your moment came, you had to be ready, because if you f—ked up, everyone would know whose fault it was. What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?..."
Will Henry Skrimshander lead the team to its first winning season? Will Mike Schwartz find all his hopes fulfilled in this regard? Baseball matters desperately in this novel. But so does physical affection and, whether felt by a freshman or a college president, the unquenchable desire to know another human being in a deep and important way before the end of things. In this regard, the novel takes its place among a few charmed works of art that deal with the national pastime in the context of human yearning — books by superb writers such as
and Mark Harris. It also stands among the best school novels we have, from "This Side of Paradise" to "A Separate Peace."
Although, I'd like to think that this wonderful first novel will sing to readers who don't know, and don't even care about, the difference between a ball and a strike, and to readers who worked their way through evening college in an inner-city far from any idyllic Midwestern campus by a lake.
"The Art of Fielding"
By Chad Harbach