The Art of Fielding

Jonathan Franzen sums it up succinctly on the front cover: “First novels this complete and consuming come along very, very seldom.” Combined with the glowing blurbs on the back of the novel, you would think this an over-hyped novel. But Chad Harbach deserves every bit of praise for this delightful, powerful and addictive debut.

Henry Skrimshander is a gifted shortstop—having studied The Art of Fielding forwards and backwards—who gets a chance at the big leagues with the help of his mentor Mike Schwartz. But when he accidentally throws a ball into one of his teammates heads, the lives of the five main characters are knocked off course. Henry begins to doubt himself and his skills, spiraling into a dark depression. Schwartz becomes a manic pill-popping addict who falls for Pella, the daughter of the college president. Pella finds comfort in Schwartz’s big arms—not so much his big beard—after running out on her husband. President Affenlight is too busy falling in love with young Owen to notice all of Pella’s drama. And stoic Owen finds himself trying to keep these people from falling apart.

In the small community of Westish College, these lives intertwine in numerous ways both humorous and tragic. Although much of the story is about baseball—Henry, Schwartz, and Owen are all on the team—most of the plot development (blessedly) occurs off the diamond. In this 500-page opus, only about 50 pages are spent on the actual games. And the only time the sport outstays its welcome is in the final climactic game, but by then the stakes are so high and the characters so important to you that it’s easy to get lost in the game. It’s a novel with baseball, not necessarily a novel about baseball. It is, though, a novel about commitment—to the game, to friends, to family, to lovers.

Harbach’s beautiful prose style is easy to get lost in as he weaves in literary allusions (mostly to Melville’s Moby-Dick—enough to inspire anyone to read that book after this one) and winking—often sarcastic—asides. You’ll be laughing aloud at some moments, bursting into tears at others, and generally addicted to the story as a whole. Each character is so wholly formed that it’s easy to find bits of yourself in some—if not all—of them. The only disheartening aspect of the book is that Owen never gets a true POV chapter (the short chapters jump between the different characters’ perspective), leaving much of his inner thoughts up for interpretation by the others. Although it could be argued that this merely preserves his Buddha-like persona.

This is so complete and compelling a novel that you would be hard-pressed not to enjoy reading it. This popular novel was listed as one of the Top 10 Books of 2011, and it could arguably be considered the best book of 2011. (That it wasn’t a Pulitzer finalist—or even winner—is a travesty.)

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