Sunday Book Review of THE ART OF FIELDING By Chad Harbach
Chad Harbach makes the case for baseball, thrillingly, in his slow, precious and altogether excellent first novel, “The Art of Fielding.” “You loved it,” he writes of the game, “because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about the Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”
If it seems a stretch for a baseball novel to hold truth and beauty and the entire human condition in its mitt, well, “The Art of Fielding” isn’t really a baseball novel at all, or not only. It’s also a campus novel and a bromance (and for that matter a full-fledged gay romance), a comedy of manners and a tragicomedy of errors — the baseball kind as well as the other kind, which as Alexander Pope pointed out also has something to do with the human condition.
But it starts and ends with baseball. The novel centers on the Westish College Harpooners, a Division III team from the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan that sees its fortunes rise and then rise some more with the arrival of a nearly magical young shortstop named Henry Skrimshander. Henry is an infield savant, scrawny but supremely gifted, and by his junior year he’s chasing records and being scouted by the majors as a top draft prospect. Then, in the baseball equivalent of a werewolf movie, it all goes terribly wrong: Henry changes, before his teammate’s horrified eyes, into Chuck Knoblauch. In other words (for those who don’t remember Knoblauch’s struggles with the turn-of-the-millennium Yankees), he enters a prolonged and agonizing funk in which, for no good reason, he finds it impossible to field his position. ...
Measured against other big, ambitious debuts by striving young writers (Harbach is a founder and editor of the literary magazine n+1), “The Art of Fielding” is surprisingly old-fashioned and almost freakishly well behaved. There’s some strained humor in the early going, when Harbach seems unsure of his register, but once he settles into a mildly satiric mode of psychological realism — the mode of latter-day Jonathan Franzen, rather than the high turbulence of David Foster Wallace — the book assumes an attractive, and fitting, 19th-century stateliness.
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