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The Art of Fielding Hardcover – 5 Jan 2012
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‘Reading The Art of Fielding is like watching a hugely gifted young shortstop: you keep waiting for the errors, but there are no errors. First novels this complete and consuming come along very, very seldom.’ Jonathan Franzen
‘Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is one of those rare novels – like Michael Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh or John Irving’s The World According to Garp – that seems to appear out of nowhere, and then dazzles and bewitches and inspires, until you nearly lose your breath from the enjoyment and satisfaction, as well as the unexpected news-blast that the novel is very much alive and well.’
‘I gave myself over completely and scarcely paused for meals. Like all successful works of literature The Art of Fielding is an autonomous universe, much like the one we inhabit although somehow more vivid.’
‘Compulsively readable’ Literary Review
About the Author
Chad Harbach grew up in Wisconsin, and graduated from Harvard in 1997. He was a Henry Hoyns Fellow at the University of Virginia, where he received an MFA in Fiction in 2004. He is currently the Executive Editor of n+1, which he co-founded, and lives in Brooklyn.
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The novel centres on a small group of individuals: Henry Skrimshander the young teen with an exceptional talent when it comes to handling a baseball; Mike Schwartz the college baseball captain how discovers Henry and talks both Henry and the quite backwater Westish College into his enrollment; Owen the super cool, gay black who is Henry's college roommate; Guert Affenlight the college principal; and Pella his daughter. We do get to meet other member of the team who comprise a wide mix of natures but their role is relatively minor.
Henry and Mike soon become close friends, in fact Henry seems to have little else in his life besides baseball and Mike, so when things start to go wrong for Henry he is dependent on Mike, who is not always up to the task. His involvement with Henry is not helped when Pella appears on the scene and inevitably distracts Mike.
Keeping an eye on the proceedings is Guert Affenlight, but this dashing and handsome older man begins to take too close an interest in Owen, an interest far from discouraged by the beautiful, slender young man, but which can only lead to disaster.
The Art of Fielding is a well written and well constructed story, my appreciation of which was in no way hampered by my lack of interest or knowledge of the game of baseball. The characters are appealing and and clearly individual and one soon becomes concerned for each one of them; this is a touching and rewarding story of loyalties and friendship.
Mike Schwartz is the apha-jock leader of the college baseball team, inspirational to others while suffering his own crisis of confidence in his post-graduation future. Henry Skrimshander is the ace baseball fielder in the key short-stop position, discovered, recruited and mentored by Schwartz, and seemingly destined for a career in the majors. Owen Dunne is Henry’s roommate and unconventional fellow member of the baseball team – more aesthete than athlete. Professor Guert Affenlight is the college Principal, an alumnus of the college and the team; and Pella is his prodigal daughter whose return threatens to upset an apple cart or two.
Although the baseball team’s progress provides the narrative backdrop it is the developing relationships between these five that drives the book. These are multi-dimensional – within the family, inside the team and, inevitably, between lovers.
The sporting context is nicely counterbalanced by the academic setting as Westish revers literature in general and Herman Melville in particular. This is due to a connection with the Moby Dick author, discovered by Guert Affenlight in his grad student days, and celebrated by the sports team’s nickname of the “Harpooners”. Poetry, philosophy and art are discussed almost as often as pitching, hitting and fielding (themselves considered an art by aficionados).
Such linkages and cleverly interweaved storylines add depth to the book, as do the complex and likeably flawed characters. Although in need of a good shake every now and then, their intentions are good and their errors, mainly due to their youth, are forgivable.
Knowledge of baseball is probably not essential to the enjoyment of this fine book, but as a keen follower I may not be the best judge. Certainly as a fan of the sport, I loved the book even more for its sporting context and references.
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