The Art of Fielding tells the story of baseball savant Henry Skrimshander and the people he encounters when attending Westish Liberal Arts College in Wisconsin on a sports scholarship. Skrimshander’s initial contact with the college begins when he is spotted playing by Westish college baseball captain Mike Schwartz. Schwartz looks past Skrimshander’s diminutive size and notices his aptitude for baseball while watching him play for his small town baseball team the Legion.
Reasoning that such a talented player could turn around the fortunes of the beleaguered Harpooners whom he captains, Schwarz recruits the 17 year old Skrimshander. Soon the Harpooners fortunes are reversed thanks in no small way to Henry. Alas Henry’s record breaking streak comes undone when he injures a teammate with a misplaced throw. Suddenly the weight of other people’s expectations becomes too much to bear and Henry falls victim to ‘Steve Blass’ syndrome. Steve Blass syndrome for those of us who are not baseball aficionados refers to talented baseball players who suddenly and inexplicably lose their ability to throw. It is named after an unfortunate Pittsburgh Pirates player who suffered this frustrating fate after the 1972 season.
Here I must confess to my complete disinterest in and aversion to sport in general. Despite being entirely ignorant of baseball, Henrys paralysis and its implications for himself and those around him fascinated me. It is a credit to Harbach’s skill as a writer that I empathised with Henrys struggle. Harbach successfully conveys what it is to be a sportsperson standing alone in front of an expectant crowd treading the fine line between hero and pariah status. His descriptions of baseball being played held my attention and have roused my interest in possibly watching baseball at some stage in the future, a feat matched only by Don De Lillo’s Underworld. The baseball element is a large part of the book but the Art of Fielding is not exclusively a sports novel. Henry’s scholarship to a liberal arts college provides elements of the campus novel.
As we can expect from this genre much focus is placed on the interactions which happen over the course of college life. The main characters who we are introduced to are college president Guert Affenlight, his daughter Pella, grizzled self-made college big man Mike Schwartz and placid young Bodhisatva Owen Dunne. As an undergrad Affenlight was responsible for uncovering a visit to the college by Herman Melville who visited while on a lecturing tour. Capitalising on this tenuous connection with Melville, Westish College erected a statue to the great writer and renamed its baseball team the Harpooners in honour of him. Affenlight has spent many years lecturing in Harvard after publishing a successful book on themes in Melville’s Moby Dick and has returned as president of his beloved alma mater. Affenlight seems to have found a sort of peace and stability in his role as president which is short lived due to the return of his daughter Pella who has abandoned her life in San Francisco and returned to the family home. Further to this Affenlight is falling in love with someone you shouldn’t fall in love with, at least not while serving as a college president.
The object of Affenlights affections is Henry’s roommate Owen Dunne, a charming young man who is homosexual and of mixed descent,a liberal’s wet dream. Owen has thoroughly enchanted college president,father, and former ladies’ man Guert Affenlight, who late in life finds himself to be a fan of Thomas Mann as well as Melville. And no wonder. Dunne is not only a student of excellent character and academic ability but is also a competent baseball player. Furthermore he manages both these feats while also being a habitual marijuana user.
This seemed so unlikely to me I began to wonder if perhaps Harbach was taking a tentative foray into magical realism. The same can be said of the implausible working class, noble savage and self-made college big man Mike Schwartz. I found the characters of Owen and Mike Schwartz a little problematic in terms of believability which is a negative for a novel which grounds itself in realism. Both characters feel like white liberal American fantasies and the author gets a little drunk on what he evidently feels to be their exoticism.
This is especially apparent in a novel which consistently references Melville, an author who was able to represent characters from other cultures as complex and fully fleshed out individuals. This could have proved fatal for the book were it not for its strengths which offset calamity.
What first stood out to me about the Art of Fielding was its refreshing straight forwardness and lack of cynicism. Harbach explores the nuances of human relationships and the nature of friendship and his conclusions are surprisingly unjaundiced. He is capable of expressing the complexities and compromises of friendship without denigrating the concept itself. The structure of the novel is similarly straight forward to the point of seeming old fashioned in its solidity and willingness to tell us a story. I found this combination to be very charming and in the end I was seduced by its simplicity and overall warm tone. The Art of Fielding is a fine example of a good story well told. While not achieving the heights of Melville’s ‘Great American Novel’ Moby Dick, Harbach has commendably written a very good American novel.