A Boy and his Game
Read the first line here.
The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. Back Bay, 544 pp.
It’s hard to find the right word to say about this book. Harbach’s debut is epic, from beginning to end. On the one hand, it’s about a boy turning into a man. On another, it’s about America’s signature sport. On yet another it’s about the inner secrets between those most closely involved in a small-town Wisconsin college.
Henry Skrimshander “played shortstop, only and ever shortstop–the most demanding spot on the diamond.” The book opens as Henry, a senior in Lankton, South Dakota, catches the eye of Mike Schwartz, the captain of the Harpooners of Westish College in Westish, Wisconsin.
Henry modeled his own career after that of Aparico Rodriguez, the Hall of Fame shortstop who spent eighteen seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. Henry has Rodriguez’s book, The Art of Fielding, memorized.
Mike Schwartz can count the days he has left in the game. His knees are practically shot after so many years as catcher, and he’s in a tough spot. He spends his last three Westish years coaching Henry.
[Henry had] never met someone like Schwartz–someone who, when he wanted something, took immediate steps to acquire it.
And while this is true for the lives of those around him, he can’t quite seem to get himself together. He’s in the tumultuous middle ground between his dreams and his abilities, and he can’t quite get the one to meet the other.
Thrown into the mix is President Guert Affenlight, the president of Westish, his daughter, Pella, and Owen Dunne, Henry’s “gay mulatto roommate.” These characters offer depth to the story that could never have been reached through just Henry and Mike.
The book has established itself on every bestseller list, and it doesn’t take much to see why. Even a reader unfamiliar with the details of baseball can get lost in the characters and story lines. Harbach’s writing captivates, even as he describes the motions of the game:
The kid glided in front of the first ground, accepted the ball into his glove with a lazy grace, pivoted, and threw to first. Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off of his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond. It smacked the pocket of the first baseman’s glove with the sound of a gun going off. The coach hit another, a bit harder: same easy grace, same gunshot report. Schwartz, intrigued, sat up a little. The first baseman caught each throw at sternum height, never needing to move his glove, and dropped the balls into the plastic bucket at his feet.”
The Art of Fielding takes the reader intimately through the psychological effects of ambition and failure. If this book were to have a thesis, it would appear almost exactly halfway through the book, during a conversation between Owen and President Affenlight”
Better to stay right here, in the heart of the problem, where your restrictions will protect you.