The Art of Fielding
by Chad Harbach
"The Art of Fielding" grabbed me on the first page with "This was the second Sunday in August, just before Schwartz's sophomore year at Westish College, that little school in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin." Definitely a baseball book.
I don't usually finish novels I don't love or really like, or really need to read for some reason because there are so many brilliant novels, and so little time. While reading "The Art of Fielding" I kept asking myself, why don't I just put this down? And I'm still asking myself.
It's a sentimental book, which baseball books often are, possibly because baseball addiction, whether playing or watching, begins at an early age, provoking adult memories of languid summer afternoons with Dad, nostalgia about glorious players, fifteen inning games, double headers on dog days. Peanuts and hot dogs are the madeleines of baseball aficionados.
But if you love baseball writing (and I do) you might want to read "The Art of Fielding" in spite of its 500 pages, which could (I think should) have been edited to 300.
Whenever the novel bogged down with its contrived characters and names and not very believable love affairs, there would be a real feeling for college baseball, and some very beautiful writing. But when Harbach veered from baseball and the relationships between the team members the story sagged.
"The Art of Fielding" is also the title of a fictional book by the fictional retired shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez, and the bible of Henry Skrimshander, a young shortstop out of South Dakota who, because of his fielding skills, is miraculously offered a scholarship to Westish College on Lake Michigan, home of the Westish Harpooners (Melville is name dropped quite a lot). This is because he's discovered by the captain of the team, Jewish catcher and kingmaker, Mike Schwartz, who is one of the more interesting characters in the book, though you might want to check out "The Catcher was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg," by Nicholas Dawidoff about the real life Jewish catcher, a far more fascinating character than Schwartz.
Yes, the characters' names are not subtle. For example, Quentin Quisp and Guert Affenlight. Fortunately Quentin is a minor player in the book, but Guert, the 60 year old President of Westish College whose love affair with Owen Dunne, a 21 year old scholar, disinterested ball player, and roommate of Henry, is central to the novel.
Owen and Henry meet cute. Owen introduces himself to Henry in their dorm room, "I'll be your gay mulatto roommate." Then he asks Henry if he's familiar with President Affenlight's "seminal -- ha! --work", "The Sperm Squeezers". It's this kind of contrived nonsense that feels like a bad sitcom.
Pella, wayward daughter of Affenlight, and the only female of the five main characters, seemed to be invented by an editor who felt the novel needed more heterosexual romance. Nothing about her rang true.
Yet I finished the book and it was compelling in its way. So check it out for yourself.
And if you really love baseball writing there's always Roger Angell, Roger Kahn, Bernard Malamud, Nicholas Dawidoff, W.P. Kinsella, Mark Winegardner ("Veracruz Blues"), Pat Jordan ("A False Spring", a truly great baseball book), Updike on Ted Williams ("Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu"), etc. etc.