Book Review 1/12
The Art of Fielding, a first novel by Chad Harbach was well reviewed and included in the year’s best lists. Fielding, in this case refers not to the 18th century British writer and author of Tom Jones, but to the defensive skills of a baseball team while “playing the field” and trying to prevent opposing players from reaching base safely, advancing those who do, and ultimately crossing home plate to score. Those who have played the game at any level understand that this is no easy feat… and to perform flawlessly is as noble and achievable as living a life without regrets.
As I’ve always been a huge baseball fan I approached the book eagerly anticipating an exploration of the subtle appeal and the unique strategic and metaphysical elements of the game. Probably what attracted me to the book was its similarity in name and apparent construction to one of my favorite classics, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
It turns out The Art of Fielding is the title of a book within the book written by (fictitious) St Louis Cardinal great Aparicio Rodriguez that contains a concise collection of baseball tips and sage advice, which becomes the mantra of protagonist and college baseball hopeful Henry Skrimshander. Undoubtedly, Harbach based the character Aparicio Rodriguez on the Hall of Fame shortstop, Luis Aparicio who, through his fielding agility (nine gold glove awards), steady hitting (2,677 career hits) and speed on the base paths (led the league in stolen bases nine times), redefined the role of the major league shortstop. Henry works tirelessly to hone his skills at shortstop in keeping with the words and accomplishments of his hero.
As the story unfolds Harbach does a good job tying in the book within the book as the characters emerge and take form. In addition to Henry we meet his teammate and mentor/confessor Michael Schwartz, another teammate and Henry’s gay roommate Owen Dunne (whose nickname perhaps in homage to Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is “The Buddha”), the college president Guert Affenlight and his daughter Pella.
Henry feels lost and overwhelmed by being away at college and seeks solace in baseball. In the game itself, but even more in the routine of developing his skills as an emerging athlete, Henry finds peace and a kind of religion; The Art of Fielding becomes his bible and Schwartz his spiritual advisor. As such, Schwartz keeps him focused on The Game and when he falters requires Scrim to run the stadium stairs till he drops rather than 10 Hail Mary’s. Henry often seeks guidance from the well-worn pages of his bible:
“The glove is not an object in the usual sense… For the infielder to divide it from himself, even in thought, is one of the roots of error.” Aparicio Rodriguez, The Art of Fielding
There are natural parallels between life on and off the field – especially when Henry falls from grace in more ways than one. As someone who constantly works to rid himself of the “roots of error” and achieve perfection, acceptance of human frailty does not come easy. So far so good…
But the story quickly devolves into a shallow romance novel – I won’t bore you with the relationships that develop and the fact that they seem for the most part contrived but it’s never entirely clear what the point is exactly. So, The Art of Fielding collides with Peyton Place and loses any sense of Zen. To make matters worse, Harbach’s editor was asleep at the wheel and neglected to lop off the thick layer of extraneous, rambling, and distracting writing. For example, one chapter begins,
“Affenlight, as he sat at his desk, slid one socked foot from its burgundy loafer and rubbed his instep, which itched, on the rigid heel of the shoe.”
Really? Later we are treated to,
“He extracted something small and dry from the corner of a nostril and flicked it toward the wastebasket.”
Trust me… this level of excruciating detail does not provide insight into the characters or help advance the plot in any way. At 512 pages one wonders if Harbach was perhaps paid by the word. In concept and in fleeting moments throughout the story The Art of Fielding approached greatness, but alas in the end, the rookie Harbach drops the ball and like my N.Y. Mets, I was left unfulfilled saying…”wait till next book.”