February 29, 2012

Review: The Art of Fielding

The Art of Fielding
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not the biggest baseball fan. Generally I find it pretty slow and boring and I don't follow the seasons at all, unless the Yankees make the playoffs. (I'm a Manhattan native and my mother's from the Bronx -- deal with it. The New York Yankees are unquestionably the greatest team in baseball history.) My childhood was full of baseball, with a very jocky Irish-twin brother ("I just want to check the score.") and my inglorious Little League career, which lasted into junior high. I find baseball stultifying on TV and team identification rather stupid (except the Yankees -- see above) but going to a game itself, with the stadium's intense stimuli, rowdy crowd, and beer, rather fun once in a blue moon. That's all just to give you my baseball background. It's not a thing I would list among my favorites or even passing interests, but I know the rules and what it's like to stand in a manicured outfield on a beautiful summer day, wearing the sexy uniform with my balls sweating in a cup and my hand sweating in a leather glove.

The Art of Fielding is, comprehensively, a baseball book. It's fully immersed in the world of collegiate sports at a contemporary, quaint little liberal arts college on the banks of Lake Michigan, and the setting feels believably real. The players live and breathe baseball, and we see them train and play, in intricate, well-choreographed, engaging visual detail. Harbach is an excellently cinematic writer, and his action scenes bristle with easily-imagined excitement. I was never bored or confused by the activity, and stakes are kept high throughout. Parts read almost like a baseball thriller -- or really, like any classic sports underdog story, like the Bad News Bears, with their engaging emotional investment. This world, and its motion, is wonderfully rendered.

Besides the thrilling action scenes, the writing is solid throughout, even lyrical, with a humanistic good humor and emotional understanding. Perhaps if I were nitpicking, I'd say that some of the descriptions of emotional and mental states becomes overindulgent and maybe a little whiny, but Harbach has set himself a difficult and ambitious task -- to illuminate the challenge of self-doubt from our modern existential crisis through the arena of baseball -- and that's extremely hard to accomplish without some serious navel-gazing. Really, it's impressive how much entertaining action and pleasurable soap opera is delivered to sustain us through this dark tea time of the soul.

Several characters are quite good, with captain and catcher and coacher Mike Schwartz perhaps the most vividly created. He's a full, exciting personality, filled with pain and strength. Henry Skrimshander, who the book revolves around, can seem sexless and cryptic, a bit more machine than man, even while struggling with weighty mental blocks. I like Henry, but wanted to know more about him to make his crisis more personal. The third in their awkward romantic triangle, Pella Affenlight, is pretty interesting and relatable, but perhaps a touch too adorkable. Her father, Guert Affenlight, the president of Westish college, fits into the puzzle neatly, and he's a fascinating intellect who makes a believable late-life veer into homosexual romance, although he sometimes read somewhat younger than his life experience would indicate. The final main character here is Owen Dunne, a Zenlike baseball player who gets all the best lines, and is notable for the deep respect the team shows him, but perhaps is too Magic Gay to provide a fully-rounded portrait. Still, I cannot complain too harshly about the inclusion of a complex gay romance as a major plot point in a baseball book -- it's a wonderful addition to a sports story, and makes the novel seem all the more modern and humanistic.

Overall, I'd give the book 4 1/2 stars. The prose is enjoyable, even superb and funny in places, and the vivid action, stronger characters, open-minded and open-hearted outlook, and solid literary and psychological ambition recommend The Art of Fielding greatly. I'd be remiss not to mention the problems of the more obtuse characterizations and self-indulgent soul-plumbing, but ultimately it's a gripping read that resonates.

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