Jonathan Franzen is quoted on the dust jacket of Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding as saying “First novels this complete and consuming come along very, very seldom.” High praise from other writers can be found on the book’s Amazon page. I had to give the book five stars even though I would have liked to deduct half a star for reasons that I’ll explain below.
While reading The Art of Fielding, I kept trying to find the right word to describe the genre Harbach has invaded. Unable to do so, I’ll simply cite the league that he’s trying out for stars the likes of John Irving and Michael Chabon.
Fielding is built around five characters: Schwartz, a parentless Jew from Chicago, Henry, the presumed protagonist––a kid from nowhere who lives to play baseball, Owen, his gay roommate who is also on the Westish College baseball team; Gert Affenlight, the college’s president and his daughter Pella.
Each is an twenty-first century archetype in the Jungian sense. Had this book been written forty years ago, Schwartz would have a skinny kid escaping the ghetto by his single-minded devotion to baseball and Henry would have been a Polish or Scandinavian jock from the Midwest who sees the potential in Schwartz and nurtures him to success. But this is now and Schwartz is the super jock who picks Henry up by his pint-sized neck and turns him into a phenom, a likely high draft pick, but also someone who doesn’t recognize that his existence is balanced on the knifeblade of perfection.
Had Harbach just given us Henry’s story, this book would have been a nice debut novel, showing promise but not the gravitas to make it the big leagues. Instead Harbach interjects the other three characters into the story, making this a novel, not about baseball or college, but about coming and being an adult. Let’s start with Owen.
Owen is the one character who doesn’t change from start to end. His nickname is Buddha, which tells you all you need to know about his personality. He’s the most perfect character and also the most disappointing.
Henry’s perfection on the ballfield craters when a wind-aided errant throw hits Owen in the face in the dugout where he was as ususal reading a book rather than paying attention to the game. This error snowballs into personal disaster for Henry. He exhibits the inability to make an ordinary throw a la Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblach, but Owen, whose inattention caused the miscue to unsettle Henry, never steps up to the plate to try to help his roommate overcome his crisis of faith.
Owen also enters into an affair with President Affenlight, an affair that comes to a bad end for Affenlight without influencing Owen in any way. In other words, Buddha is not responsible for what happens around him. Maybe in fiction, but . . .
Affenlight’s daughter Pella plays a more complex role in the story. She arrives on campus, escaping from a bad marriage, takes up with Schwartz, enables Henry during his worst days, and then precipitates a denouement where we readers are happy to see three of the characters have survived the crisis, an ending about which the reader is kept in doubt until the last chapter.
The best books about sports are not about sports per se but about how sports colors the world we live in. Sports often mislead young people into ignoring important questions about who they are and how they plan to manage in a world where the difference between winning and losing can be determined by the direction of the wind.
The Art of Fielding is also about death and souls as Owen reminds us at the end, referring to a lesson that President Affenlight taught him. “You told me once that a soul isn’t something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love.” Other than Owen whose soul is timeless, the souls of Schwartz, Henry, Pella and even Affenlight grow stronger in the pages of The Art of Fielding, teaching us that some things are worth the effort, even if they don’t turn out perfect.