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Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Chad Harbach's The Art of Fieldingis the best novel about baseball I've ever read.  Ok, it's the only one, but it is still an excellent work.  The story follows four characters at a midwestern college during spring semester; each person's life go abruptly askew (like oh, say, an errant ball that must be fielded), forcing him or her to reevaluate expectations and assumptions.  Schwartz and Henry are on the baseball team, which thanks to Henry is on the verge of winning a title for the first time ever; Affenlight is the president of the college, who up until now has led a very predictable and contented life; and Pella is his daughter, home for the first time in years to recover from a bad marriage.  Just a chapter or two in I found myself peaking at the last pages to make sure things turned out ok, I was that invested in the story and characters.

Of course, the book isn't really about baseball, despite the wonderful, nitty-gritty depictions of that sport; that's just the tool Harbach uses to explore the characters and their relationships with each other as they each face a crisis of their own doing. The relationship between Henry and Schwartz in particular drives most of the book, extending out in rippling circles and ensnaring the other characters. Affenlight is famous (in academic circles) for a book he wrote years ago about Moby Dick and "the cult of male friendship in nineteenth-century America"; The Art of Fielding could be seen as a twenty-first-century riff on that. Modern American notions of masculinity, combined with both homophobia and a growing acceptance of homosexuality, have resulted in an odd distrust of close male relationships unless there is the cover of something else like whaling or baseball.  And so, because of team loyalty and a shared goal, Schwartz and Henry don't actually think about their bond, especially the pitfalls, until it is almost too late.

Pella's story, and her relationships to the other three, do not fare quite as well.  Unlike all too many male authors, Harbach gives her an actual personality, thoughts and opinions of her own, and goals independent of the men in her life, but all the pieces don't quite fit together.  This is just a minor flaw, however, in an overall engaging and wonderful novel.

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