Book Review: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
“Each of us, deep down, believes that the whole world issues from his own precious body, lie images projected from a tiny slide onto an earth-sized screen. And then, deeper down, each of us knows he’s wrong.”
I don’t know where I first heard about The Art of Fielding, but I picked it up from the library before Christmas. All I knew was that it was about baseball; other than that, nothing. Chad Harbach’s debut novel takes place at Westish College, a small liberal arts college in Westish, Wisconsin. It follows five characters who are all changed by one event. The Art of Fielding is about baseball, but not really. Baseball is a huge part of the novel, but mainly it is all about the relationships among these five characters.
Henry Skrimshander plays in a summer league after high school with no plans to attend college, when his team goes up against Mike Schwartz’s summer team. Mike does not notice anything special about Henry during the game, but after the game, Henry fields ball after ball to the shortstop position from his coach. Mike is completely entranced by Henry’s fieldwork and convinces Henry to play for Westish College. Fast forward a few months, and Henry is enrolled and is now a member of the baseball team. Mike quickly takes on the role of Henry’s personal trainer and coach, ensuring that Henry is the best shortstop. Henry and Mike become best friends, and Henry also befriends his other teammates, even though he is a little socially awkward. Henry’s roommate and teammate, Owen Dunne, is not someone you would think he would befriend, yet the two become fairly close. Owen is not your typical baseball player. For one, he is gay, reads in the dugout, and is always serene that he earns the nickname “Buddha”. When a routine throw from Henry to first base somehow careens off target and nails Owen in the face, Henry's confidence falls apart, and he doubts his skills and talent. He had already been scouted and had tied MLB’s Hall of Famer Aparicio Rodriguez’s NCAA record of 51 straight games without an error. But once that throw happens, Henry no longer trusts his instincts and keeps making errors. Mike is powerless to get Henry back on track, and it begins to strain their already tense relationship.
When Owen is still recovering from reconstructive surgery and a concussion, he strikes up an affair with Westish College President, Guert Affenlight, who is almost 40 years his senior. Owen and Guert embark on a quirky relationship; this is Guert’s first gay experience, but he is head over heels for Owen. All of this is happening when Guert’s twenty-three year old daughter, Pella, comes home for the first time in four years, leaving her husband. She quickly strikes up a relationship with Mike. But as Henry keeps losing his confidence, it puts a strain on his and Mike’s relationship, and thus Mike’s relationship with Pella.
What fascinates me about this story is the extremely codependent relationship of Henry and Mike. Henry depends on Mike for almost everything, and Mike depends on Henry’s dependence. Mike is such an integral part of the Westish College Athletic Department that he is basically an assistant coach for the baseball team and even commandeers one of the conference rooms to finish his thesis and work on his law school applications. On top of all of that, Mike dedicates himself to training and coaching Henry. Mike has started to resent Henry's reliance on him, but it all comes to a head after Henry's slump. But as we see time and again throughout The Art of Fielding, Henry needs Mike to get through school and life, while Mike needs Henry to need Mike. Later in the book, Pella and several others even comment on how codependent and symbiotic their relationship is. But even though their relationship is not the healthiest, it is refreshing to see two characters with no familial or romantic entanglements, rely so heavily on one another.
One thing I had a hard time with is Pella’s character and her decisions. I know she was supposed to have some anxiety and a lot of authority issues, but her choices just did not sit well with me. It could be because I did not agree with them, but I also think it did not feel true to her character. Maybe part of that is due to the fact that Harbach is a man, and it is tricky to get a true female perspective from a male author. Some of her decisions just seemed a little too far-fetched given her situation, but maybe that was the whole point.
I enjoyed The Art of Fielding and definitely recommend it for anyone who is interested in sports, but it is also a great book about relationships and growing up. And plus, the cover is pretty cool. I give it 4 stars.
Let me know what other sports books you loved.