Even if you had no interest in baseball, Chad Harbach’s campus-baseball novel, The Art of Fielding will be one of the most absorbing reads you are likely to encounter this year
If there’s something of a great story to be read in a book, its made greater only by the strength of its writer’s story. And what a story Chad Harbach’s life makes. Living in abject poverty bordering on destitution, for most of his adult life in pursuit of writing that one great novel, it took Harbach ten years and ten times as many rejections before things started to turn around. His debut novel – a tale of love, loss and triumph of the human spirit set against a backdrop of the diamond– was an idea whose time had come.
Literary publishers fought in a fiercely bid war from which emerged Little Brown and Co., that secured the rights of the book, thereby making Harbach an advance that would have been obscene if it was to one less deserved. Upon release, The Art of Fielding waltzed its way to the top of the bestseller lists in the US and the UK and never looked back.It was being said with increasing regularity that wunderkinds of the contemporary literary novel like Jonathan Frenzen and Don DeLillo have company. Still, great reviews or not, one deterrent remained — it was a book on baseball – a sport most of us have little interest in, or knowledge of.
It’s a reservation that Harbach makes you soon forget. Henry Skrimshander, a prodigious talent, has just arrived to join the Midwestern Harpooners, a varsity team whose fortunes are going to rise. Because there are two things Harry can do with superhuman accuracy – to catch a ball and throw it. By all measures, he is seems destined to superstardom. Until a freak throw injures his teammate– it marks the beginning of Henry’s fall from grace.
There on, Henry is too aware of his fallibility, paralyzed by thought, unable to act or react naturally. While his team wins, he suffers. But Henry’s crisis is not his alone, the fates of five others, hang in the balance. As the final game arrives, all of them must face their deepest, darkest hopes and fears.
To be sure, in Art of Fielding baseball is simply a prop. As Harbach admits in an interview, “The sport just fit the story I wanted to tell. I was interested in watching someone going through a purely psychological crisis in public. Lots of people have those breakdowns, but it’s less interesting when you can hide away. For Henry, anyone who wants to can come and watch him fall apart. No one had written fiction about that; it seemed a very good start to something.”
And fiction, it is, of the finest quality. Harbach weaves his love for baseball with his love for literature. Besides Melville, to whom the book is an unapologetic tribute, playful references to Dickinson and Whitman, Emerson and Lowell are abound.
Perhaps a tad bit too long, but warm, generous, engaging, readable, Art of Fielding is inspiring and transformative.