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.

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