Sunday Review: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

I’ve been interested in this novel since it was published ten years ago but somehow never got around to reading it until now. 

The Art of Fielding is the name of both this novel and a book within the novel, a manual about how to be an excellent fielder written by the fictional Hall of Fame shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez. Snippets from this guide—which range from technical advice to Zenlike wisdom to a lover’s obsessive paeans—appear throughout the novel, particularly in the beginning. 

At first, it’s easy to assume that the story is primarily about Henry Scrimshander, who’s read the guide so often he can recite it. But Harbach doesn’t have such a narrow focus in mind. It quickly becomes apparent that there are five equally important protagonists to this story:

  • Henry Scrimshander, a teenaged baseball phenom reminiscent of The Natural’s Roy Hobbs
  • Mike Schwartz, the college sophomore catcher who spots Henry’s talent and recruits him for the Westish College team of which Mike is the driving force
  • Owen Dunn, Henry’s college roommate, a scholarly, gay, biracial student with a normally unflappable personality
  • Gwert Affenlight, the handsome charming president of Westish College, who used his own obsession with Herman Melville to reshape the college identity
  • Pella Affenlight, Gwert’s brilliant but rebellious daughter who dropped out of high school to marry a forty-something architect, a relationship that sent her into deep depression and eventually back home

Like The Natural, this is a baseball story that’s about much more than our national sport. These five people are on a collision course that leads to unexpected romantic pairings and re-pairings. More importantly, several of them confront personal crises that force them to reevaluate what they really want. The themes of obsession, self-destruction, self-knowledge, personal responsibility, and the possibility of redemption are integrated throughout the story. 

I thoroughly enjoyed it and only wish I hadn’t waited so long. 

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Filed under Book Reviews, fiction

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