Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Harbach Wins Fans with Debut

On occasion there are fictional characters whose lives you can imagine beyond the pages of the book they reside in. One feels like one has been given a window into their experience, not as if they have been created solely to prove a point or tell a single story. The characters in Chad Harbach’s debut novel The Art of Fielding are these sorts of people. When I reached the last page, in a matter of days despite the novel’s bulk, I was sure that Henry, Schwartz, and their teammates would continue on with their lives, and it was my loss to no longer be a witness.

Henry Skrimshander is a kid from South Dakota for whom baseball is the only thing. He plays shortstop with an effortless kind of beauty that Mike Schwartz spots immediately. Schwartz is a student at Westish College, a small, fictional school in Wisconsin. A hulking, stereotypical form of an athlete, Schwartz recognizes the kind of talent he always wished he possessed and decides to help Henry realize his potential. Schwartz himself is perhaps the most compelling character. He pursues law school as vehemently as he coaches the best from his teammates but finds himself skidding to a confused stop and searching for what actually anchors and drives him.

Schwartz changes Henry’s life drastically, shifting its course from community college student to rising baseball star of Westish. Henry’s arrival on campus exposes him to grueling, vivid training sessions and introduces him to his roommate Owen, one of the book’s fulcrums.

Guert Affenlight, the president of Westish, and his daughter Pella, are actors off the baseball field. Affenlight is a wonderful, scholarly figure, whom we see stirred by unexpected desires. His daughter has returned to him after a botched, early marriage, and is trying to land on her feet. Both characters add a dash of relativity to the events on the field, though struggles are not placed in a hierarchy.

Often I found myself pausing over Harbach’s sentences for the pleasure of rereading them. He is inclined to describe people with food in mind and I was happy to be sent to the dictionary more than once, though fuchsin was perhaps unnecessary since fuchsia works just as well. Quite a lot of reference was made to the “hip hop anthem of the moment,” a tired means of expressing the wilted nature of the surrounding college culture. But happily much is made of 19th century literary bastions, particularly Melville, whose brief, rediscovered visit to Westish earns the college athletes their name, the Harpooners.

The relationships in The Art of Fielding are fragile. Some of the relationships constructed by Harbach seem founded on very little. But then that can be the case; an incidental bond at the heart of something that grows almost without encouragement or reason. Their basis resides in the familial, loyalty, awe.

For much of the novel Henry is an obedient puppy dog to Schwartz’s insistent regime of vicarious success. But Henry’s relationship with baseball founders at the novel’s center, calling into question his purpose. He is infamous for his errorless play, and just as he ties the record of his hero, he throws an errant ball. The consequences multiply and set numerous, irreversible events in motion.

The Art of Fielding
educates the reader about passion as well as confusion, prejudice, and baseball. As someone for whom sports are incidental, the novel was a consistent pleasure if not a comprehensive course on America’s favorite pastime.

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