'The Art of Fielding': Chad Harbach's debut novel transcends the ballyard
The shortstop position was invented sometime in the mid-19th century as the form of modern baseball took shape. It is the pivotal spot in the infield and calls for a player of above-average skill.
Pirate shortstop Dick Groat was both National League batting champ and most valuable player in 1960, an amazing season that culminated in a World Series victory for Pittsburgh.
Mr. Groat wasn't blessed with speed, a strong arm or home-run power, but intelligence, instinct and grit, skills that earned him announcer Bob Prince's tag of "captain and team leader."
Henry Skrimshander reminds me of Mr. Groat, with one exception: He lacks toughness. Henry plays short for the Westish College Harpooners in Chad Harbach's debut novel of angst along Lake Michigan.
He's a slightly built guy, but a fielding wizard who's read just one book in his life, "The Art of Fielding," written by the author's mythical super shortstop, Aparicio Rodriguez.
Baseball aficionados can quickly see through Mr. Harbach's not-so-sly game: Luis Aparicio was a great shortstop for the Chicago White Sox while Alex Rodriguez played short before moving to third base -- and a stratospheric pay grade -- for the New York Yankees.
Before you start thinking, "Oh, another baseball novel," let me explain that "The Art of Fielding" is really about forming and nurturing relationships: Henry with dynamic team leader Mike Schwartz, Schwartz with Pella Affenlight, prodigal daughter of Guert Affenlight, president of Westish, and Guert with Owen Dunne, scholar and perennial Harpooner bench rider.
Mr. Harbach is a co-founder of the literary journal n+1, so we should expect the author to fill his hefty (512 pages) debut with literary allusions, not the least of which is to Herman Melville.
Having some fun, Mr. Harbach invents a visit by Melville to the Wisconsin school in 1880, rediscovered in 1969 by Affenlight when he was an undergrad. The discovery prompts Westish to embrace the Melville theme, hence the Harpooners.
The character of Dunne is linked to John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany." In that novel, Meany kills a girl with his foul ball in a Little League game.
In Mr. Harbach's novel, Henry nearly kills Owen Dunne with a wild throw that beans him in the dugout. The scholarly Dunne doesn't see the ball because he's reading a book during the game -- if you can believe that.
The consequences of the beaning include Henry developing the "Steve Blass" phenomenon, meaning he can't hit the broad side of Moby Dick with a throw and ruining his career, Pella and Schwartz splitting up and Guert consummating his love for Owen.
Mr. Harbach practices all of the techniques of the classic literary novel, from drawing well-realized characters to developing a suspenseful plot that pulls us through those 512 pages as we follow the lives of his creations. Of course, the book climaxes with the championship game, with personal redemption, rather than a trophy, on the line.
"The Art of Fielding," however, feels claustrophobic, confined to the conventional campus setting with little sense of a world outside the college -- and leaving us with the feeling that this smartly written book aspires to be just that and nothing more.
First Published September 18, 2011 12:00 am