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the art of fielding

26 april 2013

Last year, I said of Chad Harbach's acclaimed baseball novel The Art of Fielding that "it will take a lot of motivating to get me back into" reading it. Long story, but the motivation was provided, and I took another look at the book. It's still not at all to my taste, but it has its strengths, and one can see why it drew rave reviews from those with different taste.

The Art of Fielding lacks sensation, melodrama, histrionics – good lacks, really – but it also lacks, as some detractors noted, narrative energy. Four young students and one senior academic converge and drift apart in the course of its 512 pages, and their common humor might best be described as "phlegmatic." The characters have certain strong desires – some want to play baseball, all want to love and be loved – but despite some opportunity for the sharpening of romantic triangles and parallelograms, the characters' desires aren't really pitted against one another. Hence no dramatic tension, and hence no plot interest.

There's an overall story framework, though: one familiar from numerous pulp and juvenile and pulp-juvenile college-baseball fictions of the 20th century. In fact, by odd conjuncture, it's a story much like that of Howard Brier's Shortstop Shadow (1950), a novel I picked up last week pretty much at random and enjoyed well enough for its gee-whiz corniness. Fictional college baseball team (in Brier, "Western"; in Harbach, "Westish") is headed for a championship behind a star shortstop. But then the shortstop develops obscure problems which pose mysteries for his coaches and roommates. The shortstop eventually abandons the team to work on his personal journey. The Big Game transpires, the championship is decided, and a big professional contract for a shortstop is in the offing; but college baseball always flourishes again and ever green Next Year.

In many other ways, Shortstop Shadow and The Art of Fielding couldn't be less similar, and I doubt that Harbach has read Shortstop Shadow; I doubt anybody but me has read it in decades, honestly. The point is not that The Art of Fielding has a source, but that it engages an archetype: the team that has problems coming together because of the self-doubt of its star player, and the way the star player deals with his demons before the Big Game. There are truly hundreds of sport fictions that employ that archetype, and their quality varies with how originally and thoughtfully they transform it.

Not to spoil the plot, but The Art of Fielding, while old-fashioned in many of its motifs, chooses a quiet and oblique path through these clichés, and arrives at a truly lovely couple of closing pages. The one constant in the novel is shortstop Henry's fixation with being the best there ever was in the game. Harbach's novel is thus a study in an obsession, but it's an obsession that meets no enemies but itself.

One senses that it would be a better novel if it centered more on Henry, but its points of view are several and diffuse, and there's a gauzy quality to the free indirect style of the narration as it moves among their consciousnesses. As many readers pointed out, The Art of Fielding is at least as much college novel as sport novel (though can you really have a college novel entirely without sports?) It's been compared to William Maxwell's Folded Leaf, and it reminds me in places of more recent academic novels like John Williams's Stoner, Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, and Donna Tartt's Secret History. An eclectic group, for sure, but they're all books that share a vision of a college as a small, inbred, quasi-familial place where everyone passionately cares about one another and their community. (For better or worse; in some of these fictions the characters would be a lot better off if their village wasn't raising them.) And so, the spirit of Westish – fey, humanist, ivory-towerish – circulates through their interactions in a way that seems frankly nostalgic, unlike any college campus I've been on in the past 30 years (if such campuses ever existed).

Ultimately, despite a meticulous, mirror-to-life realism that extends to descriptions of appliances, furniture, and recipes (not for nothing did Jonathan Franzen admire the novel so much), The Art of Fielding is a book about what we wish college, baseball, and life were really like. I'd prefer more stylization and more cynicism, but there's a place for gentler things like this in literature, too.

Harbach, Chad. The Art of Fielding. New York: Little, Brown, 2011.