Saturday, 1 September 2012

Review: The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach

The Art of Fielding

Chad Harbach

Fourth Estate, 2012 (2011)

At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.

Henry's fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry's gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners' team captain and Henry's best friend, realizes he has guided Henry's career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert's daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.

As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets.

The Art of Fielding begins with a chance meeting between Mike Schwartz and Henry Skrimshander on a baseball field in Chicago. Henry plays for the losing side, a mediocre team from South Dakota, but Mike spots his unusual and brilliant talent as a shortstop, and engineers for Henry to enrol at Westish College, where Mike is a student, determined to nurture Henry's talent. The book begins with Henry's lonely first term, and gradually expands to include Mike, Owen (Henry's roommate), the college president, Guert Affenlight, and Guert's daughter Pella, all of whom are struggling with their own problems and trying to make sense of their lives in this tiny Wisconsin college town.

The Art of Fielding is primarily a college book, and stories of American college life rarely fail to pull me in. The mixture of small-town college life and baseball gives the book an almost mythic feel, isolating the characters from the rest of the world, both on and off the baseball field. The characters have all decamped from elsewhere - Henry from South Dakota, Mike from Chicago, Pella from a disastrous marriage in California - and settled in Westish, a place which appears to shelter them from the outside world. The inevitability of President Affenlight's secret being discovered late in the book is tempered by some degree of surprise that real life, with all its regulations and codes, has managed to intrude at all.

At the centre of the book in Henry and his rise as a major baseball talent, which later becomes marred by a near-crippling sense of self doubt. As a main character, Henry is something of an enigma. The reader rarely gets to see inside his head, and is left to read much of Henry through Mike. Furthermore, Henry is single-minded in his appreciation of baseball and his striving towards being the best shortstop he can possibly be. His whole life is structured around training and playing. Henry is difficult to fathom, and this distance becomes more pronounced as he begins to unravel, as his thought processes remain largely hidden. There is a sense of impending disaster, and yet nothing in the form of reassurance to counteract it.

The other characters offer more insight, particularly Mike and Pella. While Mike's life is gradually beginning to fall apart, Pella's is starting to be put back together. Pella's relationship with her father underpins much of the book, as the two learn to live with each other, or not, again. Though romantic relationships do develop in the book, the relationship between Pella and Guert, and more so Henry and Mike, form the nucleus of the novel, and it was interesting to see these dynamics played out.

While I have always had a fascination with baseball, and have seen a handful of live games when living in the U.S., I was a little bit concerned that the book would be heavy on games and terms that I couldn't understand. I found it reasonably easy to follow what was going on, however, and though there are a lot of games played in the book, I didn't find that it dominated to an irritating degree.

Though it was difficult to get a handle on Henry, I liked him as a character and was willing him to succeed the whole way through the book. I oscillated in the second half of the book between two likely endings, and which one I would prefer, but in the end it turned out a little differently to my expectations. Overall the book has quite a melancholy tone, and is reflective rather than action-packed, but I enjoyed the tone and the pace, and it fit well with the themes of discovery and recovery that are woven through the text. The unlikely band of characters at the centre of The Art of Fielding were all engaging and felt genuine enough that I cared what happened to them at the end. Highly recommended.

Overall rating: 8.5/10

Book source: Received as a gift from my dad.

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