Inside Baseball for Outside Spectators

Review: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

by Wynter K Miller

In the fall of 2011, I was living in Washington, D.C. and I was miserable — too miserable to do much of the thing that usually palliated my misery. I couldn’t read. My father had died the previous year, a fact that even now, two decades later, I continually have to fact-check. The obituary confirms a year passed between what happened to him and what was happening to me, but in my memory, my father had just died and nothing I did could fix it. I couldn’t read. I joined Goodreads. I couldn’t read. I made lists and lists of books. I couldn’t read. I haunted Capitol Hill Books and Politics and Prose. I couldn’t afford to buy much, but I spent millions in time, buried in the stacks. And I couldn’t read. Around that time, I discovered Books on the Nightstand; Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman kept me company to and from the train station. In my memory, I was always walking in the rain, their voices a constant soundtrack in my ears.

When the podcast was still running, Michael and Ann ended every year with an “Our Favorites of X Year” episode. In 2011, Michael’s list (and the New York Times’) included The Art of Fielding. I didn’t read it, but I still remember what Michael said about it.

“I’m not a baseball fan, but I still loved this book.”

Years later, The Art of Fielding continues to show up on lists of sports fiction, as well as lists determined to identify novels that are “not really sports fiction.” It has been repeatedly recommended to me as a book about baseball that I should read, notwithstanding the fact that I don’t especially care about baseball. This year, one decade after its release, I finally read Chad Harbach’s debut (and only novel to date). I’m glad I waited. Had I read Fielding in 2011, I might have hated it (I hated so many reader favorites in 2011, I can’t help but wonder — did Dave Eggers, Neil Gaiman, and Sarah Vowell really deserve one-stars? Or was I just in a foul mood? My dislike, deserved or otherwise, is still too strong to compel a record-straight-setting re-read). To be sure, Fielding is not a perfect novel, and I didn’t love it nearly as much as Michael Kindness. But at least I feel confident that I’m evaluating its flaws and strengths with something like a reasonable mind. Which is to say: I didn’t read Fielding expecting it to brighten the world. I’ve realized by now that sometimes, even books can’t do that.

The Art of Fielding is a baseball novel, regardless of its literary trappings and the abundance of acclaim it initially generated from the “serious” publishing world. (For those interested, an article published in The Atlantic takes an interesting look at the roots of the 2011 hype.) The plot centers on Henry Scrimshander, a freshperson recruited from a summer league by Mike Schwartz, the captain of the Westish baseball team. Westish is a small liberal arts college in the wholesome Midwest, and Henry is a wholesome and exceedingly talented young man staring down the long barrel of a post-high school life without baseball. Mike rescues Henry from a blue-collar existence, Henry rescues the Westish baseball team from athletic obscurity, and baseball rescues everyone from unhappiness … until it doesn’t. During a game at the height of his college career, as MLB scouts congregate in the stands, Henry makes an error, ending his record-setting streak for most consecutive errorless games by a shortstop and shattering a teammate’s face.

Henry’s error, which occurs within the first 100 of the 500-plus pages, sets off a chain of events that alter the lives of Harbach’s eclectic cast of characters. Owen Dunne, Henry’s teammate, is sent to the emergency room; his convalescence allows for the development of a relationship between himself and Westish’s president, Guert Affenlight, who becomes joyously mired in a romance with a student 40 years his junior just as his estranged daughter arrives in town. Pella Affenlight arrives at Westish on the night of Henry’s Big Error and promptly falls into her own ill-advised romantic entanglements — first with Mike, and then with Henry. Throughout it all, Henry and Mike suffer crises of confidence, jeopardizing both of their futures.

Though baseball is at the heart of the novel, it is true that Fielding is also brimming with content for the baseball illiterate. There are the aforementioned romances for the romantics, complex social and family dynamics for readers who gravitate toward multigenerational sagas, and a fair number of literary nods for the serious fiction connoisseurs (Herman Melville features prominently in Guert’s narrative, for instance).

That said, while an appreciation for baseball is not required, I cannot help but think that an appreciation for the sport — or for athletics in general — would elevate Fielding from a solid 2.5-star book to something closer to a 4-star.

Without such an appreciation, the novel’s weaknesses become weighty. It becomes easy, for example, to focus on the fact that Henry lacks a personality. His narrative arc is clear: he loves baseball, he loses baseball, he loses himself. But in between, he exhibits a strange paucity of emotion. He drops out of classes, loses his virginity to Pella, and cocoons himself in his failures. Throughout, his even-keeled, near-affectless personality never slips. Similarly, Pella’s motivations are never explained. I remain confused about her desires (or lack thereof) toward Henry. She sleeps with him, repeatedly. And then she stops sleeping with him, abruptly. I have no idea how Pella reached either decision, or how she felt about Henry pre-, post-, or mid-coital. At best, I can say that she exhibited something like mild curiosity about Henry — of the kind that might justify a one-night stand, but certainly not a months-long tryst.

Ultimately, I’d absolutely recommend The Art of Fielding to a baseball enthusiast. For non-sports fans, however, I’d gently nudge them in John Irving’s direction. You don’t have to love wrestling to appreciate Irving’s building of a perfect narrative (everyone should read The World According to Garp).

Rating: 2.5 stars

Favorite Lines

Now, he was locked in. Every day that summer had the same framework, the alarm at the same time, meals and workout and shifts and SuperBoost at the same times, over and over, and it was with that sameness, that repetition, that gave life meaning. He savored the tiny variations, the incremental improvements — tuna fish on his salad instead of turkey; two extra reps on the bench press. Every move he made had purpose.

With each new writer he began at the beginning and proceeded to the end, just as he’d done with Melville. When he’d exhausted the American nineteenth century, he expanded his reach. By absorbing so many books he was trying to purge his own failure as a writer.

Henry knew better than to want freedom. The only life worth living was the unfree life … the life in which you were chained to your one trust wish, the wish to be simple and perfect. … You made sacrifices and the sacrifices made sense. … No matter how hard you worked, you could never feel harried or hurried, because you were doing what you wanted and so one moment simply produced the next.

… a soul isn’t something a person is born with, but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love.

Wynter K Miller is an editor and writer in California.

Wynter K Miller is an editor and writer in California. @wynterkm