The Art of Fielding
by Chad Harbach
A Book Review by Mary Saffell
The Art of Fielding begins and ends with baseball. But it is also about college life, families, romance and life choices.
The story takes place on the campus of Westish College from the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan. It centers on the Westish' Division III baseball team, the Harpooners, whose fortunes rise with the arrival of a lanky young man by the name of Henry Skrimshander. Henry is an incredibly gifted shortstop and is guided by the team's catcher, Mike Schwartz. By Henry's junior year, he is chasing records and being scouted by the majors as a top draft choice. Henry is at the center of this college solar system where characters like Guert Affenlight, the college's President and his prodigal daughter, Pella, and Henry's roommate, Owen Dunne, intersect. All of these characters are appealing and interesting and many of their ups and downs are tied to Henry's performance...and non-performance.
Henry, under Mike Schwartz's watch, is going along well when, suddenly, things change. Henry descends into a funk where he finds it impossible to field his position. It is painful to see Henry fall apart. As befits a shortstop, Henry is the linchpin around which the book's other characters revolve. Mike Schwartz recites Robert Lowell when he first sees Henry play. Yet he has his own demons with alcohol and vicodin. Owen Dunne, who introduces himself to Henry saying "I'll be your gay mulatto roommate" and who is a fervent environmentalist is the most normal of the characters in the sense of being comfortable in his own skin. The team's booster, Guert Affenlight, President of the College, has his own issues and his daughter Pella, who has fled her marriage, is enduring a crisis of confidence of her own.
All of these characters come together and move apart, reminding us of our own lives which are shaped by our own mistakes as well as our ideals. The loves, friendships, duties and betrayals, both of self and others, drive a clear and appealing plot. The baseball motif highlights the characters in important ways. Will Henry Skrimshander claw his way out of his funk and lead the team to its first winning season? Will Mike Schwartz find his dreams fulfilled? Will Pella come to know what she wants and needs in the end? Will the desire to know another human being in a deep and important way, whether felt by a freshman or a college president, be met in the final act?
The "Art of Fielding" takes its place dealing with the national pasttime in the context of human yearning. This book is beautifully written by Harbach who says, when speaking about failure and success and outsize ambition, "to want to be perfect - these are themes that are pertinent to baseball but also pertinent to the rest of the characters".
I enjoyed this book immensely and one should not be put off by its baseball theme. It is really about life, love, success and failure and learning to live with the decisions you make.
Mary Saffell works at Mitchell's Book Corner. The Art of Fielding is available at Mitchell's Book Corner, Nantucket Bookworks, and here.