I initially thought this was a book about cricket, but it centres around baseball. Yet you don’t have to know anything about baseball to enjoy it, as baseball is only the device around which Chad Harbach writes about his four protagonists.
I find it hard to explain why I enjoyed this book – as a friend of mine said to me after she had finished it, “What is it that makes it good?” I think it is the balance between the beauty of sport, literature, friendship and romance that Chad Harbach manages to create in this, his debut novel. It is set on the campus of Westish College, a small midwestern university and I’ve always been attracted to American college stories for their seemingly exotic location and air of infinite possibilities.
Henry Skrimshander is the main character of the four protagonists (if that’s possible). He is a shortstop on his school’s baseball team, a skinny unassuming kid. (A shortstop is a defensive fielder between second and third base.) Mike Schwartz is the scout who recognises Henry’s talent and offers him a place at Westish to play on their team, The Harpooners.
Throughout the book, Harbach describes baseball with elegance, sometimes making it sound more like a dance than a competitive sport. When seeing Henry play for the first time, Mike says,
“The kid glided in front of the first grounder, accepted the ball into his glove with a lazy grace, pivoted, and threw to first. Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond. It smacked the pocket of the first baseman’s glove with the sound of a gun going off.“
Henry enters Westish with trepidation, coming as he does from a small town in South Dakota. He never imagined he would get to college on a baseball scholarship because he is small and thin: “College coaches were like girls: their eyes went to the biggest, bulkiest guys, regardless of what those guys were really worth.” Even when he goes into his res room for the first time, his roommate asks him if he is really Henry, because he was expecting someone bigger. Henry’s roommate is Owen Dunne and he says to Henry, by way of introduction: “I’ll be your gay mulatto roommate.” Owen is also on the baseball team.
Guert Affenlight is the President of Westish College, a man who wrote a successful book called The Sperm-Squeezers, a study of the homosocial and homoerotic in the nineteenth-century American letters. Guert is obsessed with Melville and Moby Dick, and references to the two are scattered throughout the book.
In fact, for being baseball-loving males, the characters are all incredibly well-read and literary quotes or facts are thrown around casually by all of them, a device I found slightly strange for this type of novel, but delightful all the same.
The plot of the novel is woven around baseball as the central theme, but it is one that is so faded in the background that it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the sport or aren’t interested in it. Again, I have to say I find it hard to say why I enjoyed The Art of Fielding so much. Harbach’s writing has been compared to that of Jonathan Franzen‘s and, in a way, there is a similarity, but I far more enjoyed reading this book than Franzen’s novels. It has a poignancy to it that made me feel a little bit sad while reading it, but an enjoyable sadness that I sometimes get when reading a beautifully written book with well-developed characters. It is a thick book, so well written for a first novel that I can’t wait to see what Harbach produces next.