The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach review

by Fiona Rae / 28 January, 2012
Harbach steps up to the plate with this much-heralded debut.
Henry Skrimshander is an unlikely major league baseball prospect: soft spoken and still scrawny despite three years chugging SuperBoost and working out under the watchful eye of Mike Schwartz, captain of the Westish Harpooners. But Henry has an uncanny gift for fielding and is chasing down the record for college games without an error until an errant throw sends his roommate, Owen, to hospital. Henry’s subsequent crisis of confidence threatens to unravel everything he and Schwartz have worked towards.

Meanwhile, several romances are taking place outside the baseball diamond in Chad Harbach’s much-heralded debut novel. There’s the classic faculty-student liaison, although in this case it’s a male-male affair between the openly gay Owen and the hitherto straight college president, Guert Affenlight. In addition, Affenlight’s daughter, Pella, moves back East after the failure of her first marriage, only to walk into a love triangle involving Schwartz and Henry.

Running through and beneath all this baseball and bonking is a lot of literature, the biggest presence being Herman Melville, whose statue graces the campus of Harbach’s fictional college. Melville is said to have visited Westish in 1880 and his address, discovered in a library book by Affenlight while an undergraduate, describes how, since taking up a pen, “scarcely a week has gone by when I do not feel myself unfolding within myself”. The Art of Fielding is a novel of this unfolding, of characters breaking down and building themselves back up again.

Harbach, cofounder and co-editor of the magazine n+1, has written previously about both David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, whose Freedom he called “the best American novel of the young millennium”. There are echoes of both writers in The Art of Fielding, but don’t expect the verve or endnotes of Infinite Jest or the anger that drives Freedom.

If Harbach has a bee in his bonnet, it’s hard to detect in The Art of Fielding, which even stops short of being an elegy for America’s erstwhile national pastime. Besides Schwartz and Henry, the central characters are ambivalent towards the game itself. When asked why he wants to play baseball, Owen tells Henry he likes all the standing around, “and pockets in the uniforms”. This is not a book of baseball zealotry, for which most New Zealand readers will no doubt be grateful.

The Art of Fielding may ultimately lack bite, but Harbach has otherwise crafted an engaging narrative with moments of suspense, intelligence and tenderness.

THE ART OF FIELDING, by Chad Harbach (Fourth Estate, $36.99).

Craig Cliff’s short-story collection, A Man Melting, won last  year’s Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book.

Latest

Medical specialist and writer Eileen Merriman's prescription for success
104920 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Profiles

Medical specialist and writer Eileen Merriman's pr…

by Clare de Lore

Eileen Merriman doesn’t have to dig too deep to find the angst, humour and drama for her award-winning novels.

Read more
We still remember them: The best in new Anzac Day reading
105020 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Books

We still remember them: The best in new Anzac Day…

by Russell Baillie

The tide of great New Zealand books on the world wars shows no sign of going out. Russell Baillie reviews four new Anzac books.

Read more
Fine lines: New Anzac books and graphic novels for kids
105028 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Books

Fine lines: New Anzac books and graphic novels for…

by Ann Packer

A telegraph “boy”, heroic animals and even shell-shock make for engaging reads for children.

Read more
Keeping up appearances: The challenging job of restoring NZ's lighthouses
104978 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Keeping up appearances: The challenging job of res…

by Fiona Terry

Ensuring lighthouses stay “shipshape” isn’t a job for the faint-hearted.

Read more
The former major reuniting service medals with their rightful owners
105015 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

The former major reuniting service medals with the…

by Fiona Terry

Service medals are being reunited with their rightful owners thanks to former major Ian Martyn and his determined research.

Read more
PM announces 'Christchurch Call' to end use of social media for terrorism
104952 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Politics

PM announces 'Christchurch Call' to end use of soc…

by Noted

A meeting aims to see world leaders and CEOs of tech companies agree to a pledge called the ‘Christchurch Call’.

Read more
Red Joan: Judi Dench almost saves Soviet spy story from tedium
104942 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Movies

Red Joan: Judi Dench almost saves Soviet spy story…

by James Robins

The fictionalised account of a British woman who spied for the Soviet Union is stiflingly quaint.

Read more
What to watch on TV this Anzac Day
104749 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Television

What to watch on TV this Anzac Day

by Fiona Rae

Māori TV once again devotes the day to Anzac programming, including a live broadcast from Gallipoli.

Read more