December 16, 2019

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

October 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

After finishing Chad Harbach’s fine baseball novel, The Art of Fielding, on Friday night, I could not help seeing Joe Maddon astride the bow of his whaler, with Evan Longoria and the lads manning the oars behind him as their captain sinks his harpoon into the great white, pin-striped leviathan. The book stews its baseball slowly in Melville and its heroes lack even momentary familiarity with the winner’s circle.

Baseball’s literature tends to the non-fiction where excellent biographies of Clemente, Gehrig, and Koufax detail the history of the game and its greatest players. Most of these works are finely crafted, but they almost always leave much of life’s emotional mess at the door. It falls to baseball fiction to fill in the holes and those downside risks are much in view in Harbach’s tale of the quixotic knight of pure heart bent on slaying dragons.

Harbach sets his story at a small liberal arts college that plays its baseball at the Division III level. It is a relatively high level of competition, but one where the hope for a professional career or financial remuneration is remote at best. It is the quintessential laboratory for discovering baseball purity. Yet it is one that has given us numerous talents, no less than Joe Maddon himself, who played his ball at tiny Lafayette College.

Harbach’s Westish College nine are a hapless lot who have been mired in the cellar of their modest athletic conference for decades. Henry Skrimshander is their unlikely deliverance. He is both the simplest and most complex of a compelling cast of characters. “Skrimmer” finds that if “baseball is an art, to excel at it you must become a machine.” The captain of the team, Mike Schwartz, sees in Skrimshander the spark of unique excellence and is determined to nurture it into the most refined of baseball machines.

Unpon his arrival at school, Skrimmer already possesses a golden glove and a rifle arm. He carries his own bible, a guide to playing shortstop by one of the greatest, Aparicio Rodriguez, a fictional Hall of Famer whose book on playing the position–the Art of Fielding–is a zen master’s explanation of the game.

A very fine college shortstop, Carroll Minick, who played his ball for the University of Georgia in the early 1960’s, brought this book to my attention, just as it had been reviewed in the New Yorker Magazine. I will let the New Yorker review  speak to the quality of the literary endeavor. There is no denying the descriptive wealth of this book as Harbach describes “the unfair beauty of a professional ballfield, the expensive riotous green of the grass, the scalloped cutouts around the bases, the whole place groomed like living art.”

Use the New Yorker review as a first compass point for beginning this book. It is useful to know the book’s homage to Melville, though there are no reeling oaken decks beneath this book’s Ahab. There is however, Skrimshander’s and Mike Schwartz’s battle for supremacy in the Upper Midwestern Conference, and through it all is the obsession of Harbach’s hero with baseball, one that would make the good captain proud.

Skrimshander–reminiscent of scrimshaw, the whale bone art of the nineteenth century–has his own “excalibur,” a glove he names, “Zero.” As in Malamud’s The Natural, a gut-wrenching game changer occurs that derails the brave knight from his quest. As in The Natural, professional scouts find the boy wonder in his bucolic D-III setting, which is quickly is undone by money and greed.

Harbach’s characters are vivid and alive; their story compelling and gripping. Mike Schwartz, the captain of the Westish Harpooners, Guert Affenlight, the College president, his daughter Pella, and Skrimshaw’s roomate Owen Dunne, forge a friendship not only among themselves but with the reader.

One of the great lines in the book is also a summation of it. Harbach says late in the book, “a soul isn’t something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love.” This book is a soulful construction. It is a fine baseball book. But more than that it is as fine a novel as I have read in a while. If you approach it as literature first and baseball second, you will be rewarded on two levels. And moving forward you will have the opportunity to argue at which it succeeds more convincingly.

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