Chad Harbach, “The Art of Fielding”

As baseball novels go, this isn’t one.

The Art of Fielding starts with baseball and ends with baseball but by the time the novel wraps up, 512 pages later, we are asked to care about a wide cast of characters and many off-field issues and characters. Many.

The focus of the novel is shortstop Henry Skrimshander. At first, he is a wonder. He is recruited from his Legion baseball team in South Dakota to come play for Westish College on the Wisconsin shores of Lake Michigan. The quaint liberal arts college long ago rebranded itself around Herman Meilville because a student discovered Melville visited the campus for one day during a lecture tour. So the Westish baseball team is the Harpooners (hello, Moby Dick) and even though Skrimshander was recruited to the school his surname is an obvious nod to scrimshaw and whale bones, well, The Art of Fielding plays, at times, with that level of literary cute.

The story starts strong. In his junior year at Wetish, Skrimshander is on the verge of breaking the NCAA record for most consecutive errorless games by a shortstop. The record is held by Aparicio Rodriguez, who has written a guide book called, yes, The Art of Fielding. Skrimshander keeps a beat-up copy of the book in his pants pocket. “By this point in his life, reading Aparacio no longer really qualified as reading, because he had the book more or less memorized; He could flip to a chapter, any chapter, and the shapes of the short, numbered paragraphs were enough to trigger his memory.”

We are given glimpses of the bromides that deal with baseball and related bits of wisdom that are in the mode of “ah, grasshopper.”  The tips include “The true fielder lets the path of the ball becomes his own path” and “Throw with the legs.”

With the record within his reach. Skrimshander loses his touch. For the first time in forever, the boy with the golden arm throws an errant throw to first base during a game. The bad throw sails into the dugout and seriously wounds and may have even killed Skrimshander’s roommate and teammate, Owen Dunne.

All this would be fine, perhaps, but The Art of Fielding leaves Henry Skrimshander for long excurions with many other characters. There is Guert Affenlight, both the former student who discovered the school’s Melville connection and, later, Westish’s president.

Affenlight, a widower, falls in love with and pursues a romantic relationship with Owen. (Yes, Owen survives his brush with death.) We are also given Affenlight’s estranged daughter Pella, who flees a broken marriage in San Francisco to come in surprise fashion to live with her father—and ends up in a relationship with two lovers (hey, no spoilers here) at Westish. And there’s Mike Schwartz, who spots Skrimshander’s talent and becomes his mentor and also gets tangled up in the romantic complexities, too.

Too often, The Art of Fielding is in “tell” mode, relating with precision the characters’ thoughts. “Henry knew better than to want freedom. The only life worth living was the unfree life, the life Schwartz had taught him, the life in which you were chained to your one true wish, the wish to be simple, and perfect.”

Of course there is The Harpooners’ attempt to have a winning season and go to the playoffs in the first time since forever and Skrimshander gets his juju back (sorry, I lied; that’s a spoiler) in a most unlikely way, by literally taking one for the team in fairly horrific and high-risk manner. He wakes up in the hospital and doesn’t realize what happened after he got beaned, but it involved running to first base and, later, scoring the winning running in dramatic fashion.

The novel introduces us to so many characters, and asks us to care about them all, that I found it too sprawling and unwieldy. There are some beautiful moments, not all of them baseball, within. Having raised all the caution flags above, there is also a steady tug to the novel. Will Henry get his arm back? Will Affenlight pay any price for pursuing a student? (In many ways, The Art of Fielding is Affenlight’s book, but only deals with his late-in-life sexual interest in other men indirectly.) And who will Pella land with, especially after the ex-husband shows up?

Baseball is certainly at the heart of The Art of Fielding but the story’s early traction doesn’t hold up.

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