The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

This compulsively readable novel is about a handful of people at a small college in Michigan whose plans, dreams and ambitions are thrown off course. Mike Schwartz is more than the captain of the baseball team; he is its heart. Acting as the assistant coach the school can’t afford, he pushes his teammates to do more and better than they ever thought they could. He discovers shortstop Henry Skrimshander at a summer Legion game and, impressed by the boy’s astounding fielding ability, engineers a place for him at Westish College.

The best part of the book for me is the description of Henry’s first days at this place that seems to him like something out of a movie. “If he’d been able to imagine the students of Westish College in any specific way, he imagined twelve hundred Mike Schwartzes, huge and mythic and grave, and twelve hundred women of the sort Mike Schwartz might date: leggy, stunning, well versed in ancient history. The whole thing, really, was too intimidating to think about.”

He hesitates outside the door of his dorm room, wondering how many roommates he will have and what kind of music was trickling out of the room. Henry’s roommate turns out to be Owen Dunne, sophisticated, gay, totally cool, and compulsive about cleanliness: Henry first meets Owen as the boy is scrubbing the en suite bathroom grout with a toothbrush. The unlikely duo become friends. Owen too has a well-thumbed copy of Henry’s Bible: The Art of Fielding by a fictitious Aparicio Rodriguez, supposedly the greatest defensive shortstop ever. Rodriguez’s book is filled with snippets of advice and epigrams that border on the enigmatic.

The other two characters we follow are Guert Affenlight, the president of the college, and his daughter, Pella, who shows up at his home fleeing from an intolerable marriage and ready for a new start, though she has forgotten to bring any socks. All of these characters are afflicted by sometimes crippling self-doubt as they pursue their dreams. All but Owen, rather, who seems untouched by such mundane concerns.

I have to say that, although I enjoyed the camaraderie and mutual support of the baseball team and appreciated the various baseball metaphors, I found the main characters uninteresting, if not repellent. Although we spend a lot of time in Mike and Guert’s heads, I cannot muster enough sympathy for them to overcome my dislike of their actions. The two sad sacks, Henry and Pella, seem pretty impenetrable to me, and Owen is just too perfect to be real.

Still, I could not stop reading. I’m not even sure why. I certainly wasn’t interested in the fate of the baseball team or the characters. Certainly, the prose is addictive, easy to read, and often funny. The voices of the five are well-differentiated. One thing I particularly like is that Harbach is able to write about deep emotions in his male characters without either gruffness or sentimentality.

I had to laugh at the climax; it was not at all what I expected from a baseball novel. The ending, though, seemed contrived to me, as though the author had dug himself into a hole and didn’t know how to get out.

Yet I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out why I couldn’t stop until I had read every single word.

What book have you read recently that you couldn't put down?

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