The Art of Fielding

So I finished this book weeks ago, but am only writing about it now. I’ve also got Fante by Dan Fante in the wings to write about, and a couple other pieces that I want to bang out before the end of January… New Years Resolution… write more!

First and foremost, I want to say that I’ve been reading a few other book-based blogs recently, in an attempt to see what others are doing, and I wanted to mention them here.

First, Acid Free Pulp (http://acidfreepulp.com/author/afpulp/) is an interesting blog from NYC that updates several times a week. Definitely worth a look!

Second is Not The New York Times Book Review (http://notthenewyorktimesbookreview.blogspot.com/) which is great. It helps that I can really relate to the customer stories, as well.

OK, so here it is… The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.

The Art of Fielding
Chad Harbach
Little, Brown & Company
09/2011
528 Pages

The Art of Fielding is remarkable because it is written by a first time novelist.  You could certainly describe it as a baseball novel, in the vein of Malamud’s The Natural or Grisham’s Playing For Pizza.  At the same time, it is also an academic novel, in the vein of Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot or the criminally unknown Stoner by John Williams (not the composer, nor the classical guitarist).

The novel features two primary characters, shortstop Henry Skrimshander and catcher Mike Schwartz.  The novel also gives us perspective from Guert Affenlight and his daughter, Pella.

A reader would be surprised to discover, as the novel goes on, that the largest influence on the writing of the book was Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick.  Melville himself, as well as his novel, play a large part in the history of the fiction Westish College, where most of the book takes place.

What I really enjoyed about this novel is that pretty much all of the characters are broken (heck, that’s why I like a lot of the novels I read).

Henry is socially awkward and, despite his gains in muscle mass and intelligence, carries the baggage of his years of being underweight and sunken chested.

Schwartz, after years of kneeling behind home plate, has developed a major reliance on painkillers to combat the pain in his knees, is a constant underachiever and self-sabatoger.

Pella is on the run from a failed marriage and returns to her father, the one family member left in her life that she spurned to run away to an elopement in San Francisco.

Guert is aging, constantly living on his one major accomplishment, the discovery of an old speech made by Melville in the college’s archives, and involved in a homosexual relationship with one of Henry and Schwartz’s teammates, named Owen.

Guert, to me, is the most interesting character in the novel for me because his May-December romance with Owen made me question prejudices that I didn’t even realize I held.

When beginning to read the sections describing Guert’s attraction to Owen, I started feeling uncomfortable.  When their relationship blossomed, I felt intensely uncomfortable.  And I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

I hoped it wasn’t the fact that they were gay.  I’ve watched plenty of television with gay characters doing similarly explicit things and not felt uncomfortable (Six Feet Under being a prime example).  And this is the part where I say, “But some of my best friends are gay!”  Well… I can’t because… I think I know two gay men and neither very closely.  I never felt uncomfortable around them, either.

Was it the age difference?    Owen was twenty, Guert approximately sixty, if I remember right.  I started thinking that it must be.

Then I started thinking about how I would feel if it were an older male teacher\person in power and a younger student.  I didn’t feel nearly as uncomfortable when that exact situation played out in Alexander Maksik’s excellent You Deserve Nothing (another great Europa Press book!), so I think it was the combination of homosexual love and the age gap.

So then I confronted it.  Why do I care?  Why do start getting a case of the willies because there are two consenting adults having a relationship? And suddenly… I didn’t feel uncomfortable any more.  Guert actually went through a lot of the same things I did in the book and that made the last half of the novel wonderfully engaging.

That alone made me really enjoy the book.  Good literature should make us question our place in the world (or universe) and should force us to confront aspects of ourselves that we may not otherwise have known about.

The book isn’t perfect.  Some of Harbach’s similes and metaphors are a bit… obtuse, and the constant use of the term “freshperson” almost made me throw the book out a window.

But there’s wonderful moments of poetic language in the descriptions, especially when baseball is being played, and the characters (cliché secondary characters aside) are intriguing and interesting up to the end.  Treat yourself to a debut novel that shines as much on the ball field as off.

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