Book Review: The Art of Fielding
Hyped book lives up to billing
The Art of Fielding: A Novel
By Chad Harbach
Little, Brown, 2011
List Price: $25.99
In baseball literary circles, Chad Harbach is Stephen Strasburg. While his advance may pale when stacked up against the Nationals pitcher's $15 million deal, it's in rarified air for a debut novel targeted at a male audience. In March 2010, Little, Brown outbid seven other publishers for the rights to the then-unemployed Harbach's first book, paying $650,000 for the right to publish his tale about a slick-fielding shortstop at a fictional Division III college in Wisconsin.
The advance hype for "The Art of Fielding" may also be unprecedented for a baseball novel. Praise poured in all summer from outlets ranging from The Paris Review to Oprah to Amazon.com, which included the title among its top 10 fall books. HBO even snapped up the rights in August and plans to create a series based on the book.
Can the book possibly live up to this advance billing? In a word, yes.
Every writer who crafts a world revolving around baseball would like to pitch it as something with appeal beyond baseball fans. Judging by the limited market for baseball novels, few truly do. Harbach has pulled it off, though, thanks to the sheer mastery of his writing. It doesn't hurt that the baseball details are so realistic they seem stolen from an actual small college somewhere in the American heartland.
Mike Schwartz, the de facto captain at perennial doormat Westish College, is dazzled by Henry Skrimshander's gifted glovework after a game in a summer American Legion tournament, when the scrawny shortstop returns to the field for extra grounders after his team has been eliminated:
After each ball he dropped back into his feline crouch, the fingertips of his small glove scraping the cooked earth. He barehanded a slow roller and fired to first on a dead run. He leaped high to snag a tailing line drive. Sweat poured down his cheeks as he sliced through the soup-thick air. Even at full speed his face looked bland, almost bored, like that of a virtuoso practicing scales. He weighed a buck and a quarter, maximum. Where the kid's thoughts were—whether he was having any thoughts at all, behind that blank look—Schwartz couldn't say. He remembered a line from Professor Eglantine's poetry class: Expressionless, expresses God.
Though just a rising sophomore, Schwartz is determined to turn Westish into a winner. In Skrimshander, he sees an opportunity to upgrade the roster, so he tries to arrange his last-minute admission to the school. The chief stumbling block proves to be the recruit's skeptical father, at least until Schwartz wins him over, selling him so completely that Jim Skrimshander sounds like he came up with the idea himself.
Next Schwartz must make a hitter out of this "scrawny novelty of a shortstop." He oversees grueling weight training, supervises stair climbing runs up each and every section of the football stadium, and introduces Skrimshander to a diet supplement called SuperBoost 9000. The one thing Schwartz can't impart is defense, which falls under the domain of Aparicio Rodriguez, a Hall of Fame shortstop and former Cardinals star who penned the gloveman's bible, "The Art of Fielding."
Skrimshander blossoms into a serious middle-of-the-diamond prospect, and scouts flock to Westish games to see the young phenom, who has never committed an error in two and a half seasons. With Rodriguez's NCAA record of 51 consecutive miscue-free games on the line, Skrimshander's throw tails out of reach of the first baseman and slams into the face of his roommate, Owen Dunne, in the Westish dugout.
That errant toss really sets the story into motion, swirling the worlds of Skrimshander, Schwartz and Dunne, as well as the school president Guert Affenlight and his daughter Pella.
Schwartz realizes that he has invested so much of his own energy in mentoring Skrimshander that he has neglected his own future, but not until he's rejected by the sixth and final law school he applied to. He begins to resent his protégé and eschews his company in favor of the president's daughter, who is fleeing a failed and mismatched marriage and addicted to anxiety meds.
The school president pines for Dunne, who is gay, while hoping his attention won't be viewed as anything more than concern for a distinguished student. Tormented by hurting Dunne, Skrimshander gets a case of the yips, becoming Steve Blass at shortstop. Their paths, once so seemingly clear to each, are now muddied.
Harbach burdens each character with real foibles and arms them with enough wit and depth to stumble through the maze that their lives have become. The bonds built among them tether them together, even when strained by acts of betrayal. Ultimately, this is a tale of five people coming to terms with who they are, woven around Skrimshander's drive to be not just the best, but perfect—an unattainable goal that nearly destroys him.
Each development is intricately layered upon the ones that preceded, with subtle foreshadowing veiled beneath seemingly innocuous happenstance. But the real magic is in the way Harbach strings words together, the inventive descriptors that liven every page.
"Up came a lefty, thin as a toothbrush, who held the bat straight over his head as if trying to catch lightning." . . . "His heart in his chest felt dangerously full, swollen and tender, like a fruit so ripe it threatens to split its skin." . . . "He closed his eyes and surrendered to the slow roll of the waves like liquid Vicodin." . . . "He dipped one foot inside the batter's box, as if testing the temperature of a pool." . . . "Coach Cox kept scanning the length of the dugout, frowning all the while, the way a hungry person keeps opening an empty refrigerator on the off chance he might have overlooked something."
It would be unfair to Harbach to label him a natural. As gifted as he clearly is, perfectionist may be the more apt term. He spent nine years working on "The Art of Fielding," sanding and polishing. Clearly it was time well invested.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.