Review: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Fourth Estate, €20.99
College baseball serves as the backdrop to an entertaining, if high-minded novel, writes Adam Mars-Jones
Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding cross breeds two genres with limited gene pools, the baseball novel and the campus novel, and comes up with a vigorous hybrid, entertaining and engrossing, though almost absurdly high-minded.
There are only a few passages of unrelieved sporting technicality ("Rick O'Shea laced a one- hopper to the Amherst third baseman, who set in motion an easy double play") and even these are supported by the emotional narrative.
The story begins and ends with Mike Schwartz, all-round undergraduate athlete and driven man, and Henry Skrimshander, who can do only two things, namely place his catcher's mitt exactly where the ball will arrive off a player's bat and then throw it with great force and accuracy to where it needs to be. He is a natural genius as a shortstop, possessor of something closer to a superpower than a talent.
Henry's profound knack isn't integrated into anything much resembling a personality, so he must learn to function socially and emotionally, and also to deepen his game in areas other than his mysterious gift, his ability to respond to a response almost before it has taken place. All of this Mike, unresenting Salieri to this unlikely Mozart of the baseball diamond, makes possible by getting Henry accepted at his own college of Westish in north-eastern Wisconsin.
This sort of relationship between young men once attracted no attention by the intensity of its innocence. The feelings it channelled were the ones that powered not just sporting events, but armies and empires. Then the Kinsey report was published, and innocence seemed either self-deception or ruse.
The buddy movie has never gone away, though recently renamed the bromance, but it can often seem unsure of itself. Even the simplest attitude is mined with contradictions, as when Homer Simpson, unreflecting homophobe, on being informed by tactful Marge that the local antiques dealer prefers the company of men, replies: "Who doesn't?"
One classic way of making it easier to examine non- sexual closeness between men is to include in the story someone who is unambiguously gay (think of Richard Griffiths as Uncle Monty in Withnail and I), reassuringly of a different species. This seems to be happening in The Art of Fielding when a character introduces himself to Henry with the words: "My name's Owen Dunne. I'll be your gay mulatto roommate." Such generically engineered characters are usually solitaries or else in stable relationships, their sexuality safely earthed. That's how it is with Owen, happily involved with Jason, but then the formula mutates and becomes more challenging.
For one thing, Owen tries out for the baseball team and is accepted. His style is fluid, utterly unmacho, but no less effective for that. Then he breaks up with Jason and becomes involved with the college president Guert Affenlight, across a number of boundaries -- race, age and previous orientation, since Affenlight has never before had feelings for a man.
Indeed he has a grown-up daughter, Pella, who arrives back at Westish at about this point in the plot, after the break-up of an impulsive marriage that derailed her academic career.
These four principals in the story are all young -- in their early 20s -- but each has been supplied with some paradoxical element cutting across mere youth. Mike's body is already letting him down, his knees above all, since his athletic versatility brings with it continual punishment. Henry, aside from his gift, is like a reclusive little old man.
Owen's intellectual precocity and self-protective fogeyish manner age him, while Pella's precocious sense of failure gives her the complex attraction of the older woman. Then there's always her father, 60 but very spry, to act not as a shortstop but as a longstop for those readers unable to identify with puppies, however wounded.
Henry the genius shortstop has links with Roy Hobbs in Bernard Malamud's The Natural (Hobbs calls his bat Wonderboy, just as Henry calls his mitt Zero), but The Art of Fielding has deeper affinities with William Maxwell's wonderful novel The Folded Leaf, published in 1945, at about the last possible moment before Kinsey's report made lack of definition seem akin to evasion. Maxwell's heroes, Spud and Lymie, have feelings for the same woman, just as Mike and Henry both become involved with Pella.
The book's references, though, are mainly to Melville. There's some pretext for this, since Guert as a young man discovered the transcript of a historically unlikely lecture given at Westish by Melville in 1880 (he went on to write a book on, guess what, "the homosocial and the homoerotic in 19th-Century American letters"), but a baseball trophy is not a white whale and Mike, stern team captain though he is, bears no resemblance to Ahab. Henry's surname, Skrimshander, suggests scrimshaw, the whittling of whale ivory as practised by sailors, and his team-mate Starblind recalls Melville's Starbuck. Harbach is shrewd enough to withhold a reference where it would seem to be compulsory, when Guert, the Melville scholar, is surprised by the quality of the chowder turned out by the college kitchen.
The Art of Fielding seems to set out to destroy, singlehanded if need be, any idea that college sport is an overfunded and culturally narrow distraction from the real business of education. When Owen says to coach Cox, "I trust you don't object to having a gay man on your team", he replies, "The only thing I object to is Schwartz playing football. It's bad for his knees," which can hardly be the whole truth. There's a Mormon on the team, too, but he seems equally accepting.
Crowds at ball games seem to find nothing funny about a player named Quentin Quisp (conceivably Harbach's homage to Queequeg). To paraphrase a remark made at one point by the chairperson of the Committee for Student Affairs, I know Westish is supposed to be a liberal arts college, but can it really be that liberal?
There are so many references to high culture that college baseball comes to resemble some sort of offshoot of Mensa. Mike Schwartz quotes Schiller in a pre-game pep talk. Owen reads Kierkegaard in the dugout. Introduced to Pella, Schwartz correctly identifies her name as that of a city sacked by the Romans in 168BC. Even Henry's point of view dwells on Homer rather than Homer Simpson. All of this would be laughable if it was done with less conviction.
On the book's first page there's an elementary slip in the point of view, with a reference to Mike letting "his huge aching back" relax against a chain-link fence. Any creative-writing instructor would point out that Mike may feel the ache but hardly the hugeness, which is information aimed squarely at the reader. Perhaps Harbach has let it stand with the affectionate confidence of a driver who decides, after passing his test, not to respray the scratch in the coachwork that happened the first time he took the wheel.
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