Notable Debut of the Year: The Art of Fielding

Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding would make the perfect graduation present. That’s not to imply that one will necessarily outgrow this novel, only that it is preoccupied with the sort of questions most of us first grapple with in early adulthood. What are my ambitions? Who are my friends? What counts as success? The charm of this novel is that it approaches these concerns as earnestly as its college-aged characters do, but without the same angst. To put it another way, The Art of Fielding lacks pretension. With its short sentences, short chapters, and simple themes, The Art of Fielding is a novel unafraid to use what one character describes as, “those big little words: love, work, art.”

Harbach’s fiction debut has been characterized as a baseball novel, but it could just as easily be called a campus novel, because most of the story unfolds at the fictional Michigan college of Westish. The novel’s primary characters include Westish College President Guert Affenlight, his daughter, Pella, and three Westish baseball players: Mike Schwartz, Owen Dunne, and Henry Skrimshander. Henry is the book’s hero, and the plot revolves around his unusual talent as a shortstop. Fielding grounders is not baseball’s most glamorous aspect, but Henry is the kind of gifted athlete people can’t help but notice. In the novel’s opening scene, Mike Schwartz observes him practicing after a game:

 

He didn’t seem to move faster than any other decent shortstop would, and yet he arrived instantly, impeccably, as if he had some foreknowledge of where the ball was headed. Or as if time slowed down for him alone.

 

Successful athletes often speak of the deep, timeless concentration they experience when they are “in the zone”, and there are echoes of that quasi-mystical language in the passage above. Make no mistake: The Art of Fielding is a sports novel, with all the attendant lingo, training montages, high-stakes games, and—since it’s baseball we’re talking about—superstitions. In a clever touch, Henry’s personal bible is a book called The Art of Fielding, written by “the greatest defensive shortstop who ever lived”, Aparicio Rodriguez. Henry frequently references The Art of Fielding (or, as he calls it, The Art) and the novel quotes generously from its numbered passages:

 

3. There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.

 

25. The shortstop is a source of stillness as the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.

 

213. Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does.

 

Henry likes “the opaque parts” best, which makes sense, since Henry is an extremely opaque character. Like a lot of athletes, he’s not especially articulate. He’s a small town kid from a working class family, lacking in  sophistication and drive. Henry knows he’s talented, but has no real ambition to play professional ball until Mike Schwartz recruits him for Westish and reveals his full potential. Mike is the team’s captain, and also its defacto coach. Mike’s gift for coaching, in fact, is as great as Henry’s gift for playing shortstop, but he is loath to admit it:

 

Schwartz, for his part, had vowed long ago not become one of those pathetic ex-jocks who considered high school and college the best days of their lives…That was why he didn’t want to go into coaching, though everyone at Westish, especially the coaches, expected him to.

 

Mike’s feelings about coaching are complicated by his admiration for Henry’s athleticism, which sometimes curdles into envy and self-pity. His success in nurturing Henry is proof that coaching is the one thing he’s good at—unfortunately, it’s also the last thing he wants to do with this life:

 

The only thing he knew how to do was motivate other people. Which amounted to nothing, in the end. What wouldn’t he give to have talent of his own, talent like Henry’s? Nothing. He’d give it all. Those who cannot do, coach.

 

All the characters wind up orbiting Henry’s talent in one way or another as they try to make sense of their own life trajectories. This novel is about life trajectories—how unpredictable they can be, despite clear goals and intentions; how inevitable they can feel, despite their unpredictability; and finally, how seemingly opposing ideas—youth and age; failure and success—become closely linked when a longer view is taken. Fittingly, the novel’s plot is set into motion by a baseball throw that veers off course. Henry, always the perfect fielder, threw the errant ball, which then hit his teammate, and best friend, Owen Dunne. President Affenlight, who is secretly in love with Owen, is watching the game, and rushes to Owen’s aid, at last finding a pretext to become close to him. At the same time, Affenlight’s prodigal daughter, Pella, is flying home from San Francisco, where she eloped when she was a high school senior, just two months shy of graduation. Unbeknownst to her father, she’s fleeing her marriage, and has tentative plans to return to college at Westish.

 

Henry’s game unravels after he hits Owen. He becomes self-conscious about his performance, afraid of making another bad throw. Once simple, Henry’s relationship to his abilities grows complicated. One way to describe what happens in The Art of Fielding, without giving too much away, is to call it a boy-meets-talent story, as in: boy attains talent, boy loses his talent, boy regains talent—with many obstacles to overcome in between. Some of these obstacles are related to the flesh-and-blood romances nestled within The Art of Fielding: Pella Affenlight and Mike Schwartz,President Affenlight and Owen. Others are more abstract, and are related to Henry’s fear of failure, success, and ultimately, change.

The Afflenlights are an interesting family, and throughout the novel their intellectual perspective is a good counterpoint to Henry and Mike’s athletic one. But Guert Affenlight was not always an academic. Once he was like Henry—a guileless Midwestern boy on a football scholarship at Westish. His ambitions became focused by accident, when he happened upon a letter in Westish’s archives, penned by one Herman Melville. (Among other American literary references, The Art of Fielding is threaded, throughout, with references to Moby Dick.) At first, dreaming of becoming a novelist like Melville, Guert ends up at Harvard, where, among other things, he fathers a child—Pella. When Pella’s mother dies unexpectedly, he raises her by himself, in a somewhat distracted way, while making his name in academia. After Pella leaves for boarding school, Affenlight finds he has no real reason to stay on the East Coast and to everyone’s suprise, he returns to Westish to become president of his alma mater. In a sentimental way, Afflenlight regards Westish as home.

Pella does not share her father’s Midwestern pride of place. Having been raised among Cambridge’s chattering classes, her identity is tied up with her precocity. She’s a guy’s girl as well as an alpha girl, which is another way of saying that she’s extremely competitive. In a misguided attempt to be more sophisticated than everyone else her age, she marries an older man at nineteen, forgoing a Yale acceptance. When she returns to Westish, five years later, she finds herself utterly lost:

 

It was confusing to have leaped precociously ahead of her high-achieving, economically privileged peers by doing precisely what her low-achieving, economically unprivileged peers tended to do: getting married, staying home, keeping house. She’d gotten so far ahead of the curve that the curve became a circle, and now she was way behind.

 

It takes a certain lack of perspective to see oneself as washed-up at age twenty-five, and Harbach hints at that lack in the passage above, but gently, sympathetic to his character’s point of view. The Art of Fielding is suffused with this kind of sympathy, and that’s what makes it such a pleasure to read. Harbach spent ten years writing his novel, and it’s obvious that he’s taken the time to get to know his characters, to experience their failures and dilemmas as his own. It feels like a very personal book—not in the sense that its events are autobiographical, but that its wisdom is hard-won.

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