The Art of Fielding is one of the most entertaining and enthralling character studies in recent years
I know next to nothing about baseball. Home runs, fouls, and bases loaded are pretty much the extent of my baseball knowledge. And, to be blunt, I pretty much think watching it is as entertaining as watching paint dry (please don’t hate me baseball fans). However, The Art of Fielding is probably one of the most entertaining and enthralling character studies released within the last couple years, especially since it’s a “book about baseball.” But it isn’t really. Yes, baseball is pretty much the main vein down the center of the novel’s various plot points, but it’s merely treated as a plot device to set the intense character study into motion.
The novel surrounds the Wettish Harpooners, a Division III baseball team in Wisconsin. A small, but passionate, school just off of Lake Michigan. Although the book focuses on five characters, the main character (in terms of plot) is Henry Skrimshander. (SIDE NOTE: Harbach has a knack for naming characters.) He is the first introduced and probably the one that has to change the most. That’s apparent from the first page. When we meet him, he’s a scrawny, somewhat dull, and naive shortstop, who is, in all intensive purposes, a savant at the position. He has potential, and Mike Schwartz sees that potential. So is born the complicated love/hate relationship between the players. He is the saving grace of the Harpooners. He makes them work harder, play better, and most importantly, win. By his junior year, he becomes the foundation of the team and even begins to perk the interest of scouts looking to bring him into the majors. However, like all great novels, the good times never last. Soon, the player that was once the key to success becomes the straw that may break the team’s back. All of which unfolds in a gorgeous, sharp prose that makes the action of the game more entertaining than in reality.
Both times he double-clutched and made a soft, hesitant throw. Instead of rifle shots fired at a target, they felt like doves released from a box.
The rest of the character seemingly fill in around Henry. There’s Owen Dunne, also known as Buddha, his gay roommate, and teammate, who casually wisps through life as casually as he hits a ball. The president of the school, Guert Affenlight, a grown man who is as confused as a college freshman, and his daughter Pella, a girl whose confusion mirrors both her father and Henry’s as she navigates the world after the demise of her marriage, complete the cast of characters. The ensemble is gracefully woven through storylines that concern each other, themselves, and of course, the team. Though the daunting 500-pages almost seem excessive, Harbach doesn’t waste single sentence. Every page helps move the characters forward.
However, the novel never goes out of Harbach’s control. It’s shockingly well thought out for a debut. Harbach knows where he wants the characters go and guides them there with ease, whether it’s 60-year-old Affenlight, whose obsession with Owen begins to affect his effectiveness as president or Pella’s journey to be both independent from her husband and her father. Even though the book covers several threads and decisions that characters make and how they affect their lives, it’s always the relationship between Schwartz and Skrimashander that the book seems to come back to. They affect each other directly and indirectly, and these effects affect the people around them. These effects are carefully noted and defined by Harbach, but he doesn’t give too much away. If you’re a reader that thrives on learning how a character is changing rather than being told, then the dynamism of The Art of Fielding ensemble will be a buffet. It seems that everyone has something to prove an obstacle to tackle. It’s almost as if Harbach is obsessed with time lost and dreams deferred.
The Art of Fielding isn’t going to be a book that everyone loves or, in some cases, even likes. However, I think that’s attributed to that fact that not everyone is built to read a book that doesn’t have a tangible destination. If you had to choose one, it would probably be the maturity of the characters, although choosing one would be unnecessary. We’re not supposed to know the destination, just as the characters don’t know what the future holds.