Monday, October 10, 2011

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, a first time novelist and a co-founder of the literary journal n+1, is a gorgeous novel that is one of the "must reads" for 2011.  Harbach creates a beautiful, elegant and believable world in this novel.  I loved it.

The story is set at a Midwest university, Westish, and is built around Henry Skrimshander, a small shortstop with amazing potential.  He fields balls perfectly and rifles them to first base effortlessly.  (The language Harbach uses to describe the fielding in the first chapter is worth reading alone.)  Skrimshander is discovered by the captain of the Westish team, large and rough, Michael Schwartz.  Under his watch, Schwartz develops Skrimshander to be major league material at this backwater university.  After establishing himself as a record breaking fielder, Skrimshander releases a throw to first base that misses its target and unleashes devastating consequences for Skrimshander and the team.  Like Chuck Knoblauch and Steve Sax, one missed throw undermines Skrimshander's confidence and potentially his baseball career and life.  Meanwhile, Schwartz is trying to make post-college plans and facing the challenges of leaving college.  Harbach populates the university with diverse characters: the university president, who is a perennial bachelor looking for love; his prodigal daughter, who returns to the university and her father after leaving school to marry an older man; and, Skrimshander's gay roommate and teammate, who plays a pivotal role in most of the characters' lives.  The characters confront the challenges of failure, changing relationships and redefining  roles for themselves in their community as the community shifts.

Harbach does a masterful job with this story.  The writing is lyrical and readable.  The story moves.  The characters live in a world of uncertainty and confront their fears.  While the baseball is very important to this book, it is as much a book about failure, the fear of failure and overcoming limitations as it is about baseball.  Harbach sprinkles literary allusions throughout the book, key among them, Melville's Moby Dick.

Several current literary luminaries got behind this book and added their blurbs: Jonathan Franzen, Téa Obreht and James Patterson.  

Recommendation:  Read this.  If you liked The Natural (or anything that ties literature and baseball together), this is a must.  If you like new and interesting voices, this is a must.  If baseball is not your thing, don't be put off.  You could still love The Great Gatsby is you didn't like large lawn parties and liquor.

Vanity Fair wrote a great article about the making of this book, which they turned into a Kindle single.  It is a great look into the publishing industry.  The link to the book is here.

An interview with the author here.

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