I don’t give a hoot about fielding. Or about pitching. Or catching, or batting, or any of the other elements of baseball that have always seemed excruciatingly dull to me. But people, now — we all like books about people, right? Earnest, diligent people who try to do wonderful things and sometimes succeed? Appealing and sometimes annoying people who long to be loved? Yes, there is a lot of baseball in The Art of Fielding but there’s also a lot of, oh, gosh, life. And I knew Chad Harbach had me totally hooked when I found myself worrying about his characters when I had to be away from them.
The novel begins with Mike Schwartz, the enormous, hairy, soulful catcher for the baseball team of Westish College in northern Wisconsin. And Mike’s tale starts with Henry Skrimshander, a slender, taciturn teenager who plays shortstop for his South Dakota high school. Mike recruits Henry for Westish and the rest of the book is about their friendship and the fate of the Westish baseball team. But it’s about baseball the way Moby Dick is about whaling, a point Harbach makes clear with a hundred little touches. Westish College has a long scholarly relationship with Melville and the sports teams are called “the Harpooners,” not a bad image to implant in your readers’ minds. Throwing things? Long odds? Hard work? Grace and danger and teamwork? Baseball, whaling, life… A “skrimshander” is someone who carves scrimshaw, so I’m not making this up. And if you think about the process of carving beauty from whalebone, you know that patience and effort are as essential to the process as any innate talent.
But why am I talking about Melville when I care so much more about Mike’s passionate determination to help the Westish teams win, or his complicated Svengali relationship with Henry? Not to mention the late-life amours of college president Guert Affenlight. Or Affenlight’s beautiful daughter Pella who flees a starter marriage to return to her father. (Home: “where they have to take you in.” Yes, she quotes Frost; it’s that kind of book.)
And though this is not a technically showy novel, I was awe-struck throughout by Harbach’s skill. Incident plausibly follows incident, cranking up the pressure on character after character. The narrative slides smoothly in and out of different characters’ viewpoints so that you, the reader, experience each scene with maximum impact. (There’s even a trademark Henry James moment, when two characters, observed from afar, reveal something astounding.) Time speeds up and slows down as it needs to. Scene-setting is lively but never drags on; minor characters are allowed to stay minor.
Ruminating about coaching baseball, Mike reflects that “All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to the final triumph.” Clever: Harbach puts the words in Mike’s mouth, but he’s followed his own advice.