The Art of Fielding is a difficult novel to categorize. Most obviously, as can be judged by its title, it is a baseball novel. But it is also Chad Harbach’s debut novel. And it is a gay novel…a literary novel…a coming-of-age novel. Logically, the next question about the book becomes: is it good at any of these things? Well, considering that the novel is also one of 2011’s most-hyped books, I have to give a qualified yes as answer to the question of whether the novel is any good – qualified because, despite what it accomplishes, I do not believe that it lives up to all of the hype.
The novel focuses on several characters associated with Westish College, a tiny liberal arts school located in northern Wisconsin. Mike Schwartz is the baseball team’s catcher and acknowledged leader who stumbles upon a high school shortstop with great fielding skills and an uncanny work ethic. Schwartz decides that this young man, one Henry Skrimshander, would be a perfect fit for Westish and manages to recruit him for the school. Already on the team is Owen Dunne, a light-skinned black player who just happens to be Henry’s gay roommate.
Westish is a strange little school, but many of those who pass through it form strong emotional bonds to the place. Its president, Guert Affenlight, for instance, has given up a position at Harvard University in order to come back to Wisconsin to head his alma mater, and his daughter Pella will seek shelter there upon the breakup of her marriage.
At the heart of the story is Henry’s run at a record setting number of errorless games at shortstop – a record currently owned by his boyhood idol Aparicio Rodriguez. As the record setting game approaches, Henry begins to think too much about the streak and very suddenly develops a case of Steve Blass disease. (Avid baseball fans will remember Blass as the Pittsburg Pirate pitcher that inexplicably lost his ability to throw a baseball accurately and, as a consequence, was forced to retire from the game.) Henry’s personal unraveling coincides, and perhaps influences, a similar unraveling of the lives of those closest to him: Guert, Mike, Owen, and Pella.
Chad Harbach’s writing often reminds of the novels of John Irving. Harbach’s love, and knowledge, of baseball is reminiscent of Irving’s relationship to college wrestling. Both writers delight in strangely-named oddball characters, and both are willing to use whatever number of pages it takes to explore fully the story they want to tell (517 pages, in this case). Although The Art of Fielding works well, it does not manage to live up to the huge amount of pre-publication hype it generated. Building the expectations of readers to an unreasonable level is a dangerous game – and The Art of Fielding suffers the consequences.
Rated at: 3.5