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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Chad Harbach’s debut novel The Art of Fielding centers on a college baseball player at the fictional Westish College who inexplicably loses the ability to throw. And Henry Skrimshander isn’t just any shortstop, he’s a pro-prosepect on the verge of breaking his hero’s record for consecutive errorless games. That hero is the fictional Aparicio Rodriguez, a Venezuelan Hall of Famer and author of the manifesto which also lends its name to the novel which contains it.

But while the novel centers on Henry’s magical ability and its mysterious loss, Henry himself could not rightly be said to be the central character. The Art of Fielding employs him as a sort of facilitator, a nexus between its other, more relatable characters. Henry, both as a genius shortstop and a wayward former genius shortstop is largely inaccessible. The reader feels sympathy for him without being able to fully understand him and his actions. Rather, Harbach allows the reader to focus on the effects Henry and his talent have on the people who surround him. Each of these characters comes complete with their own issues and entanglements, but through Henry, they each come to a sort of crisis, whether or not Henry can be properly said to bear any responsibility.

Henry’s mentor is his team’s catcher, Mike Schwartz, a self-made man from Chicago who loves his team and his university beyond all reason. It was Schwartz who discovered Henry and practically dragged him to Westish. Now in the aftermath of Henry’s lost talent Schwartz finds himself questioning his need to lead and wondering why his self-perceptions don’t match up with what everyone else seems to see in him. Owen Dunne, Henry’s gay half-black roommate is sitting on the bench casually ignoring the game when Henry’s errant throw sends him to the hospital. But that stay in the hospital sparks an unlikely May-December romance with the college president, Guert Affenlight. Guert’s daughter Pella, on the run from a manipulative older husband, falls for Mike Schwartz but their relationship is threatened by his compulsive need to help Henry above all others.

There are scenes in The Art of Fielding where Harbach doesn’t so much hold a mirror up to society but puts in under a microscope. The level of personal understanding he brings to each character is mesmerizing, and occasionally nerve-racking. A tense dinner scene between Pella and her ex-husband is so emotionally fraught that it had to pause several times while reading it.

By the end of the novel Harbach has weaved his characters into an extended family with a shared sense of love and loss. Like the university itself, they have become a support system. Harbach is wise enough to end his story on a memorable but not wholly optimistic note. Whether or not everything turns out all right, Henry and his circle have each other and the university. And that seems like it might be enough.

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