First Looks: The Art of Fielding: A Novel

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At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, 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. College president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry’s gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners’ team captain and Henry’s best friend, realizes he has guided Henry’s career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert’s daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.

As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process they forge new bonds, and help one another find their true paths. Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth, 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.

Amazon Best Books of the Month, September 2011: Though The Art of Fielding is his fiction debut, Chad Harbach writes with the self-assurance of a seasoned novelist. He exercises a masterful precision over the language and pacing of his narrative, and in some 500 pages, there’s rarely a word that feels out of place. The title is a reference to baseball, but Harbach’s concern with sports is more than just a cheap metaphor. The Art of Fielding explores relationships-between friends, family, and lovers-and the unpredictable forces that complicate them. There’s an unintended affair, a post-graduate plan derailed by rejection letters, a marriage dissolved by honesty, and at the center of the book, the single baseball error that sets all of these events into motion. The Art of Fielding is somehow both confident and intimate, simple yet deeply moving. Harbach has penned one of the year’s finest works of fiction.-Kevin Nguyen


Review:

Right off the bat, I should have been wary. Maybe it was the Vanity Fair article that practically capsized under the weight of its own praise. Maybe it was the plethora of celebrity writer endorsements. Whatever it was, I waved it away and raced to get a copy of this book. That I raced to my library’s website and not the local bookstore is at least some consolation.

When the book arrived, I thrilled to the chunky weight of it in my hands. The crisp navy and white cover was a plus as was the thick, loopy typeface of the title. Somewhere in the middle, I cracked it open and buried my nose in the rich scent of its cream colored pages, a scent not unlike china clay with an undernote of Play-Doh. I shivered. And then I started reading.

The first twenty pages were good.

The next twenty were okay.

By page forty, I was skimming.

I gave up at page fifty, exhausted by the affected prose, excessive alliteration and quippy dialogue. It all seemed…so…so conscious of itself. The characters were more like caricatures; lonely, bumpkinish Henry who feels even more alienated as he watches packs of beautiful, privileged students migrate across campus; girls with their Minkoff bags and Bumble and Bumbled hair, dressed in cashmere twinsets, corduroy skirts and pebbled leather boots; guys in flat front pants and driving mocs, who leave clouds of Creed cologne in their wake. How’s a simple shortstop from Lankton, South Dakota supposed to figure it all out?

With his plaid pajama pants and faux intellectualism, Henry’s roommate, Owen, comes off like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

College president, Guert’s (Gert? Gwert? Gee-yurt? Don’t get me started with the names) post mid-life crush on Owen comes off as creepy, more the result of plaque buildup on the brain than any genuine feeling.

And Pella…the president’s daughter. Could anyone but me NOT stop thinking of the window?

Which brings me to the names. Is “Skrimshander” some allusion to “scrimshaw”, those carved bone artifacts found on dusty glass shelves in the back booth of antique malls and whale museums? (Maybe if I’d actually read Moby Dick or gone to an English class instead of obsessively playing foosball at the J. Wayne, I would know.) Is “Arsch” some wink-wink reference to…oh well..you know. And what kind of whackadoodle title for a thesis is “Sperm-Squeezers?” But wait, that was written by Guert Affenlight. He’s the one with the plaque on the brain, right? And is the “Dunne” of Owen’s last name a play on “dun”, a color defined as “an almost neutral brownish gray to dull grayish brown”? Owen is, after all, described as having “skin the color of weak coffee”. Or does everyone already know all of that and it goes without saying?

The point is, what was intended as quirky and clever comes off as annoying, distracting and way too precious. Which is pretty much how the book came off, the parts I skimmed anyway. A much better read is Chip Kidd’s “The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters”. It deals with art instead of baseball, but the kooky campus milieu Kidd describes is hilarious. You feel like you’re riding along with the characters instead of standing on the sidelines like some unsophisticated sad sack, too stoopid and clueless to get it.

Sort of the way Henry feels in this book and kind of the way I felt as I was reading it.

Sorry, Chad. “The Art of Fielding” struck out with me.

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