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A literary hit from left field

February 14, 2012

There’s nothing I love more than a good campus novel, and Chad Harbach’s opus The Art of Fielding might be the perfect contemporary example: a sprawling all-American story set on the campus of a liberal arts college and tackling big, meaty themes like youth, love, idealism, friendship, and…baseball. Oh.

I couldn’t care less about baseball, so I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy this; but when I read that Jonathan Franzen admired it, I was sold. And, happily, you don’t necessarily need to care about (or understand) baseball to enjoy The Art of Fielding; in Harbach’s capable hands, this archetypal American sport becomes a surprisingly apt metaphor for what one character describes as ‘a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action,’ a ‘Prufrockian paralysis.’

Westish College is a small but prestigious institution in America’s Midwest, perhaps best known for once being graced by the presence of Herman Melville, who gave a talk there when he was a largely unknown writer. Since the 1960s, Westish has wrung as much mileage as possible from this glimmer of literary celebrity: the Westish baseball team is named the Harpooners, and a statue of Melville is a proud feature of the college grounds.

Unfortunately, the Harpooners have never been anything more than average, but that changes when Henry Scrimshander arrives. Shy and scrawny, Scrimshander appears to be the antithesis of the college jock, but he is a preternaturally gifted shortstop; when Harpooners captain Mike Schwartz sees seventeen-year-old Henry play, Schwartz does everything in his power to win the awkward teen a place at Westish so Henry can join the team.

Fast forward three years later, to Schwartz’s final year at Westish and Henry’s penultimate, when news of his prowess has spread and baseball scouts are filling the stands. But when one bad throw knocks Henry’s confidence and injures his roommate, Owen, it throws his whole game; he starts to question himself on and off the field at a time when he should be performing at his best. His crisis doesn’t just threaten the credibility of the Harpooners, but Henry’s dream of a league career.

But the diminutive shortstop isn’t the only one at Westish with problems. Schwartz, who’s spent so much time coaching Henry that he’s neglected to focus enough on his own studies, is facing an uncertain future; Guert Affenlight, Westish’s suave and, until now, heterosexual college President, falls hopelessly in love with Owen; and Pella, Guert’s precocious twenty-three-year-old daughter, suddenly arrives at Westish after fleeing a disastrous marriage.

All of this takes place in the book’s first few chapters, but at no stage does it feel as though Harbach is forcing his creative exposition down your throat. He draws you into the cosy world of Westish and its stars with an assured hand, sewing the criss-crossing threads of his narrative before letting you settle in to follow their progress.

While this is, for the most part, an immensely engaging and well-crafted novel, it’s almost too twee and whimsical for its own good. The characters’ names are all faintly ridiculous, some perhaps a nod to Moby Dick—Scrimshander, Starblind, Quisp—and their personalities seem to match. Everyone feels just a little caricatured and exaggerated: Affenlight is a silver-haired patrician who has no trouble attracting the interest of single mothers with legs that ‘flashed in sensual arcs like polished Brancusi birds’ and effete undergraduates alike; Schwartz is the big-hearted, big-brained All-American sports star who quotes Shiller to his team before a game; lovers in a post-coital embrace quote Thoreau and Emerson to one another. It’s idealised, nostalgic, and slightly unbelievable.

But Harbach gets away with it, largely because he writes with such unassailable belief in his characters and subject. Like some of today’s finest American fiction by writers such as Jonathan Franzen, The Art of Fielding casts its narrative eye on small and simple human stories in order to explore universal themes; unlike Franzen’s novels, it lacks a certain cynicism. This might make it seem a little contrived at times, or distastefully reminiscent of Hollywood triumph-over-the-odds movies—there’s an inevitable climactic sporting setpiece at the book’s end—but, somehow, it works. The Art of Fielding is an old-fashioned story of brotherhood, loyalty, and self-made destiny, a kind of literary paean to the great American dream.

Henry’s lapsed confidence isn’t simply about baseball, but about a gaping chasm of self-doubt, and fear of what lies beyond college: ‘all he’d ever wanted was for nothing to ever change.’ His friends’ problems, though they might not play out on a baseball diamond, are perhaps the same fears in different guises: Schwartz, Affenlight, and Pella all struggle to negotiate a place and an identity between the cosy cloisters of Westish and the world beyond.

Harbach perfectly captures the nostalgia of college life and all that it (however mythically) represents—youth, idealism, community spirit. That Westish is a tiny universe all of its own is both blessing and curse for its residents: Schwartz and Henry have ‘poured every bit’ of themselves into it, and the idea of leaving makes them question their purpose and sense of self.

Surprisingly, baseball turns out to be a winning literary device when it comes to examining these human frailties. Harbach’s descriptions of Henry’s slipping confidence as shortstop are beautifully realised, capturing the insidious creep of self-sabotage, the inner voice that trips us up with its equivocations. The ball begins to feel ‘cold and slick and alien’ in his hand; ‘Instead of rifle shots fired at a target,’ his throws ‘felt like doves released from a box.’

Harbach’s writing makes The Art of Fielding a pleasure, and much more than a book about baseball (about which I still care little and understand even less). ‘Literature could turn you into an asshole,’ Affenlight reflects; ‘it could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties.’ It’s not an assessment that could ever convincingly be applied to Harbach.

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