Rewind 20 years: Under a bright blue California sky, sun beating down, my (now) husband and I are hanging out with our friend Adam in San Diego. There is beer, popcorn, hotdogs and despite all of this I’m bored out of my mind. I’m at a baseball game. Fastforward to 2010, when my sons went with their dad to Coors Field in Denver to see the Rockies v. LA Dodgers – without me.
You get the idea, I am not a baseball fan, at least not of the game itself, but there seems to be something poetic about it that lends itself to the written word. Chad Harbach’s debut novel The Art of Fielding is currently taking the USA by storm, but it was a long time coming. It took him nine years to write and was turned down by numerous agents before eventually netting him a stellar $650,000 advance (I love stories like that!). It’s obvious what the obstacle was, but luckily someone had the vision to see past it. The baseball theme is a deterrent - I’ve mentioned it to a few friends and I see the shutters coming down. Clearly The Art of Fielding holds a special attraction for anyone who is a fan, but it’s not really about baseball in the way that Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland isn’t really about cricket.
No, it’s much more interesting than that. The novel has a small cast of characters who revolve around the superbly talented fielder Henry Skrimshander (‘Skrimmer’). He is discovered whilst still at high school in South Dakota by Mike Schwartz, captain of the baseball team at Westish, a fictional college on the shores of Lake Michigan in the author’s native Wisconsin. Determined to get this potential star of the future for his own team, Schwartz orchestrates Skrimmer’s enrolment at the college, where his roommate is the highly individual Owen Dunne. With their arrival, college president Guert Affenlight suddenly finds the boundary between personal and professional interest in his students hard to respect. His 23 year old daughter Pella, who returns to Westish unexpectedly after the break up of her marriage to an older man, is the only significant female presence in what is superficially a very male novel, but I don’t think this actually narrows its appeal; female readers don’t tend to have hang-ups about reading books by and about men (if only the reverse were true).
This is a novel where the story reveals character rather than being particularly fascinating in its own right (although baseball fans are certain to disagree) but that’s not to its detriment. At its heart is the complex relationship between Schwartz and Skrimmer, which raises questions about male friendship, loyalty, and self-belief. When Skrimmer loses his nerve after a routine throw goes horribly wrong, it affects all of the main characters, setting some on the road to disaster. There are wonderful light touches and a subtlety that left me laughing out loud and at other times, deeply moved. I felt the most for Mike Schwartz, who at only 23 has wrecked his own huge body playing sports at which he will never excel at a professional level. I found his vulnerability and vicarious bond with Skrimmer really touching.
President Affenlight is the only older character and it is very unsettling to see him being drawn deeper and deeper into a situation from which there are only two ways out, neither of them good. Skrimmer himself is curiously two-dimensional, but this makes perfect sense; he is an obsessive who lives to play ball – other aspects of his character are as muted on the page as they are in his life. His room-mate Owen is a tongue-in-cheek stereotype (gay aesthete, sound familiar?) but superbly entertaining, especially in the way he speaks, and as for Pella, well she just walks into the middle of the whole complicated mess and tangles with each of the characters to brilliant effect.
There were a few things that worked less well for me. The chapters varied greatly in length and the narrative sometimes cut to a new one for no apparent reason which affected the flow a little. The portrayal of sex generally was a little too elliptical – which is an unusual thing for me to say about a male writer – it doesn’t need to be shown, but something in the characters’ emotional response needs to convince me it really happened. I felt there were a couple of missed opportunities. There are also several self-referential moments - The empathy Affenlight felt for him surpassed anything he’d ever felt for a character in a novel – which is one of my personal pet hates. (I’m prepared to let him off in this example, but only because the character is an English teacher!)
I enjoyed The Art of Fielding so much that I tried to make it last – sadly it still only took me a week to read. Harbach does what all writers strive for by creating a fictional world so engulfing that you feel you are inside it, and between the baseball culture, the small college environment and the vivid sense of the Midwest location, it is a world that could only be American. For me, American writing at its best is hard to beat and I’m not surprised The Art of Fielding has an endorsement from Jonathan Franzen; it reads almost as if he wrote it, and I can’t imagine I’ll be saying that very often.
Good job, Chad Harbach.