As the country prepares to enjoy the 108th Baseball World Series, even those who may not be true baseball fans are often caught up in the spirit of America’s national sport. If you are indeed a die-hard baseball fan, “The Art of Fielding,” by Chad Harbach might be just the book for you. But don’t discount it even if you don’t know first base from a knuckle-ball pitch. Described by one critic as the “greatest baseball novel in a generation,” the sports theme is metaphorically much grander — that of the human condition.
The title, “The Art of Fielding,” might lead one to believe this is a how-to-book about baseball. It is that to some degree, but more a reminder that our lives are shaped as much by our mistakes as well as our successes and aspirations. It is also the story of the fate of five people brought together at Westish College, a small private and fictional school on the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin.
The line up, so to speak, is as follows:
• Henry Skrimshander (mostly called Skrimmer): A scrawny but magically gifted shortstop, who in his entire high school baseball career has made ZERO errors. He has committed to memory the philosophy in his personal bible: a fictional baseball handbook, entitled “The Art of Fielding.” That knowledge, combined with his doggedness determination and a rare innate talent, causes him to become a prized shortstop the major league scouts are clamoring over. As Henry strives to break records, the tension mounts and makes this page-turner as exciting as bases loaded in a bottom of the ninth tie game.
• Mike Schwartz: A student and athlete from Westich, who discovers Henry one summer while playing Legion baseball and recruits him to his college team where he is the catcher and captain. He eventually realizes he has guided Henry’s career at the expense of his own.
• Owen Dunne: Henry’s roommate and teammate, who introduces himself to Henry as “I’ll be your gay mulatto roommate.” Owen becomes caught up in an unexpected affair with the college president.
• Guert Affenlight: The college president, raised to this prestigious rank as a result of an amazing discovery as a Melville scholar in his undergraduate days at Westich. Hence the Harpooner mascot and the brooding Melville statue that looks out over Lake Michigan. A longtime bachelor, Guert falls hopelessly and unexpectedly in love with Skrimmmer’s roommate, Owen.
• Pella, President Affenlight’s daughter who returns to Westich after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.
The lives of these five people become intertwined and their fates are upended when a routine throw goes disastrously off course for Henry. As the season counts down to the final climatic game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, as well as their deepest fears.
Author Harbach, a Harvard grad with a MFA pedigree from University of Virginia’s graduate writing program, skillfully combines his encyclopedic knowledge and love of the game with his passion for literature, citing countless references to Hamlet, Prufrock, Melville, Emily Dickinson and Whitman.
In an interview last May, the life-long Brewers fan, said, “What fascinates me about baseball is that although it’s a team game and a team becomes a kind of family, the players on the field are very much alone ... at the moments that counts, they can’t bail you out. This is the game my father played and the game he taught me ... but women seem to like the book more than men.”
Some critics say this is due to the sensitive exploration of fate and forever friendships, soured dreams and the sweet salvation of second chances. One phrase I ran across that I particularly liked was, “it’s intelligent writing filled with the tenderness of youth.” And I might add humor and satire, so much so that it almost bears re-reading to catch what you might have missed the first time around.
Whether you’re a National or American League fan, I think you’ll agree that Harbach’s first novel is a home-run ... you might even say a grand slam.
• Former bookstore owner Vy Armour has been a resident of Ahwatukee Foothills for more than 20 years. She is an adjunct instructor in communications at the University of Phoenix and reviews books on her blog, http://serendipity-reflections.blogspot.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.