Harbach made quite the splash when The Art of Fielding came out in 2011. Big, chunky novels that follow multiple interconnected characters are my favorites, so when baseball weather (chilly, windy, damp) rolled around this year, I decided it was the perfect time to *finally* see what all the fuss was about.
From the back cover:
At Westish College, 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. Westish’s president, Guert Affenlight, falls ever deeper- unexpectedly, helplessly- in love. Owen Dunne becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz realizes he has guided Henry’s career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight returns to campus after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.
As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five and forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process they forge new bonds and help one another find their true paths. The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment- to oneself and to others.
“Maybe it wasn’t even baseball that he loved but only this idea of perfection, a perfectly simple life in which every move had meaning, and baseball was just the medium through which he could make that happen.”
-Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding
I grew up watching baseball, so reading The Art of Fielding was a bit of a nostalgic experience for me. My older brother played from t-ball to Little League all the way through high school, on two different teams at one time. When I wasn’t being dragged to sit at a game, I was most likely being dragged to sit at a practice, or, my favorite: the ten-hour road trips up and down the East Coast. The college scouts came, but my brother was no Henry Skrimshander. For everything Harbach gets wrong about the game, it was still nice to revisit those chilly afternoons spent watching my brother play, bundled up in a blanket on ice-cold bleachers.
As much as I enjoyed The Art of Fielding, it was still chock full of everything I dislike about novels written by straight white men, most staggeringly a belittling attitude towards characters who do not fit the straight white male criteria, and a sheer lack of female presence in the novel. The Art of Fielding certainly fails the Bechdel test; of the one primary female character, Pella, her role is strictly limited to daughter, girlfriend, and wife. The shape of her stomach is dwelled on in ways that stomachs of male characters are not. Harbach associates each of his characters with a text- for Henry, it is The Art of Fielding, a fictional novel by his favorite shortstop, and for Pella is is Haruki Murakami’s latest, a detail that had my laughing out loud due to Murkami’s poor treatment of female characters.
All in all, I enjoyed The Art of Fielding, perhaps more for the ability to revisit my brother’s baseball years rather than the novel itself. Despite the quiet sexism, it is a heartwarming, expansive campus tale and a true page-turner.
Find this book on Goodreads.