There have been a few books that I’ve read in the last year that I’ve had a hard time writing about. Some because I disliked them, but more because I adored them completely and totally. I loved The Night Circus so much that I read it in two days. And The Solace of Leaving Early left me feeling totally inadequate to describe how lovely it was. The Art of Fielding belongs on that short list. It’s truly a remarkable book, and I picked it up at the store completely by accident.
I chose this book for two reasons. 1. The cover. I mean, come on! How could I resist? and 2. John Irving offers a review on the back cover: “Chad Harbach has hit a game-ender with The Art of Fielding. It’s pure fun, easy to read, as if the other Fielding had a hand in it – as if Tom Jones were about baseball and college life.” After I saw that, I was hooked. I didn’t care (at all) what it was about, I just knew that I had to read it. As it turns out, it’s about baseball. Among other things.
It strikes me that a this is the perfect book to offer a review from John Irving on its back cover. It’s Irving-eque to the core. Its scope, frequent nods to literary heroes (Melville, specifically), and the parallels between sports and the human condition are all straight out of Irving’s playbook. I mean, a major character is struck in the head with a baseball for heaven’s sake! If that isn’t a nod to A Prayer for Owen Meany, I’ll kiss my foot.
In the novel, protagonist Henry Skrimshander is discovered by big man on campus, Mike Schwartz, as a phenomenal shortstop. He’s recruited to begin as a student at Westish College, a fictional Wisconsin university, where he quickly becomes a small scale celebrity. The novel really gets rolling when Henry is poised to break the all-time shortstop record for error-free games, held by his idol Aparicio Rodriguez. At the game, surrounded by major league scouts, Henry catches a grounder, pivots to throw it to first (a throw he has executed perfectly a thousand times) and the ball goes off course. Instead of striking the mitt of the first baseman, it hits Henry’s teammate Owen Dunne in the dugout. Owen falls to the ground unconscious, the game is stopped, and Henry’s life is changed instantly. When he takes to the field again, Henry is unable to throw from shortstop to first. He used to work from muscle memory–doing without thinking–but when his errant ball hit Owen, he lost the ability to throw without first considering all possible outcomes, which causes him to make constant mistakes. In the small volume written by shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez by the same name as the novel, The Art of Fielding, Rodriguez says,
“3. There are three stages. Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.
33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.”
Henry, a devoted reader of The Art of Fielding, falls victim to the dangers of thought.
The rest of the novel tells the story of Henry’s unravelling. The novel follows several other characters, too: Owen Dunne, Mike Schwartz, University President Guert Affenlight, and his daughter Pella Affenlight. From the start, the story is sweeping, beautifully told, and completely engrossing. It’s about all the things that great novels are about–love, the pursuit of happiness, friendship, struggle, and hardship. This is Chad Harbach’s first novel, and I promise, it’ll blow your socks off. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
The list so far:
30. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach