Sunday, October 23, 2011

Chad Harbach writes an astonishing novel on baseball, college, and love.

I read a review of this novel, or was it a short notice of some kind? In any case, I decided that I might like it, even though it was about a topic that wasn’t particularly interesting to me: baseball.

The Art of Fielding

The title of the wonderful debut novel of Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding (512 pages, Little Brown, $25.99), refers to a classic set of maxims for the baseball shortstop. I didn’t know enough about the sport to know whether this text, to which the novel’s hero is deeply devoted, was something from the annals of baseball or something from Harbach’s imagination.

Before one has turned too many pages of Harbach’s novel, the oddly inarticulate Henry Shrimshander has taken his place as one of the great heroes of American fiction. Henry is a dedicated baseball player and little else. But when he is noticed by the huge, powerful, and overpowering Mike Schwartz, one of the major athletes at a tiny Wisconsin college, Henry’s future seems to be decided for him.

Mike puts Henry through grueling training and turns him from a good, indeed gifted, infielder into a powerful force in his own right. Every run up the stadium steps, every weight training session, every protein shake that Mike throws at Henry, Henry takes without thinking. And as he builds muscle and practices endless exercises with his glove and throwing arm, Henry becomes an astonishing baseball phenomenon. This kid from a poor family with little prospects seems headed to a team in the majors.
Mike has his own future hopes, of course, and he works on Law School applications while he hectors Henry into shape. Indeed he becomes the driving force behind all the other members of the team, many of whom we come to know as the tale of Henry Shrimshander takes its harrowing shape.

The pitcher, the big hitter, other fielders all come into clear focus as the novel proceeds. To say that Harbach makes the team a microcosm of American masculinity would be an understatement. The range of personality and character that emerges from the few details that Harbach offers is breathtakingly precise. We are in a strikingly imagined private world that can tell us a lot about the larger contours of human experience.

Chief among these other characters is Owen Dunne, a gay athlete of mixed race who is so secure in his knowledge of himself that his teammates call him the Buddha. Henry and Owen have a great relationship, and Owen supports Henry’s growing stardom wholeheartedly. But when a wild throw of Henry’s smashes Owen in the face, all bets are off about who can achieve what in this intricate little world. Henry seems to lose his nerve and then his skill, and before long he is wondering what he is doing on the ball field.

Owen finds that he is being nursed by the impressive and well-regarded president of the college. When it turns out that this much older man is in love with Owen, the young scholar ball-player is flattered and intrigued.

Guert Affenlight, the president, also has a daughter of slightly older than college age. She had run away from her single-parent father much earlier, but now she returns home to confront him and create a new life for herself. While she is doing this, of course, she doesn’t realize that he is contemplating a whole new life as well.

Harbach constructs a world in which all these different needs are met in different ways. Not everyone survives the rigorous demands of baseball, college, and life; but those that do have a beautiful tale to tell.

Horbach has written one of the great novels of the twenty-first century. People will be talking about it for a long, long time.

Chad Harbach

The Art of Fielding is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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