Monday, June 25, 2012

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

I don’t generally enjoy reading literary fiction.  Give me a mass market bestselling romance any day.  No vampires please, but time travel and dragons are okay.  Even though Chad Harbach grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, he is a founder and editor for n+1, an East Coast literary magazine that holds little fascination for me.  So why am I writing a review of his debut novel, The Art of Fielding?
Baseball.  I like baseball.  Baseball stories.  Baseball movies.  Baseball songs.  You gotta have heart ... Buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks ... I don’t watch major league baseball on TV since free agency changed the game I grew up loving, but I still read baseball books, mostly fiction but also biographies like Jim Bouton’s Ball Four,  Jimmy Piersall’s Fear Strikes Out, and Dubuquer Brian Cooper’s baseball biogs of Red Faber and Ray Schalk.  I’ve been to the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter, not far from where I grew up.  When we visited the Amanas, Bill Zuber’s Dugout was the only place my dad wanted to eat.  Who can deny the magic of “Is this heaven?  It’s Iowa”?
Anyway, just how literary can a baseball book be?  More literary than you might think when the novel’s setting is Westish College in northeastern Wisconsin.  The Westish teams are the Harpooners.  Harpooners on Lake Michigan?   Yes, well, Herman Melville spoke at the fictional Westish in the 1880s and current college president discovered the Melville papers and the Melville statue on the campus quad is a landmark ... I am well and thoroughly hooked listening to the audio version.

The Art of Fielding is an ensemble masterpiece, plus Holter Graham is a great narrator.  Listening to Holter use his voice to characterize Henry, the shortstop; Mike, the catcher; Owen, self-described as Henry’s “gay mulatto roommate”; Pella, running from an unhappy marriage; and her father Guert, Westish president and Melville scholar; kept me sitting in my car at lunch to hear just another chapter.  I was sad when the story ended.

Reviewers call The Art of Fielding a coming-of-age story.  Each of the five main characters develops as the book progresses.  While Henry may be the main character, the supporting roles are equally important to the story’s outcome.  Henry takes inspiration from a book by his hero, Cardinals shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez, also titled The Art of Fielding, which has mediation-like mantras:  “The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense.  He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.”  Owen, Henry’s roommate nicknamed Buddha, tries out and makes the baseball team, but sits in the dugout reading philosophy.  When an errant throw from Henry hits Owen in the cheek causing a concussion, both their lives are changed, as is the team chemistry and Westish history.

Another thread in the novel is the pressure to perform, both individually and as a team and commitments to oneself and others.  Mike is completing his senior thesis and trying to get in to a prestigious law school.  Henry, a junior is being scouted for the major league draft.  A fellowship in Tokyo will take Owen away from his friends at Westish.  The Harpooners baseball team is battling for their first ever berth in the national college playoffs.  Tired of the strictures of playing wife to her much older husband’s professor, Pella leaves San Francisco to be with her father in Wisconsin.  She finds satisfaction in working in the school cafeteria and regaining her mental balance and self-esteem.

Chad Harbach took almost ten years to find a publisher.  It was worth the wait.  Play ball!

~ Michelle, Adult Services

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