I’m not a sports fan, and I don’t really understand why some people view baseball skills as art. This next statement may be heresy to some people, but I also did not enjoy reading Moby Dick. What do these two things have in common? The Art of Fielding, a contemporary literary novel by Chad Harbach. The book would seem to not be a good fit for me. Nevertheless, I was curious about where the plot was leading. I found the book very readable, littered with Melville references though it may be.
The Art of Fielding follows the course of a few important characters. Henry Skrimshander just wants to play baseball but has no particular ambitions until he is spotted in a game by Mike Schwartz, the team captain for the Harpooners baseball team from Westish College in Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Mike recruits him and devotes himself to training Henry to be a great shortstop, to the neglect of his own academic career. Soon, Henry is on the way to breaking a record for no errors held by his hero, Aparicio Rodriguez, the author of The Art of Fielding, a zenlike opus on baseball that Henry has carefully studied.
Henry’s college roommate is Owen Dunne, a brilliant student and baseball player who is also gay. He becomes involved in an affair that will have far-reaching consequences.
The college president Guert Affenlight is happy because his daughter Pella has left her husband and returned home. Affenlight is a Melville scholar, and Westish College adopted a Herman Melville motif at his suggestion because Melville made a lecture stop at the college long ago.
Pella, a difficult and rebellious woman, abandoned a promising college career to drop out of the last few months of high school and run off with an architect she met at a lecture. Guert and Pella have been estranged ever since. Both of them want to make amends but are not quite sure how.
Everything seems to be working out for everyone until Henry makes his first error in years, a disastrous throw. The characters are forced to reassess their own views of their lives.
Harbach is a careful writer who occasionally uses brilliant imagery. At heart, though, the novel is rather slight and shallow. It was 2011’s Big Book and critics raved about it, but those giving it a second look seem to be a little more critical. I enjoyed The Art of Fielding, but my enjoyment was mild.