The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

The Art of Fielding

At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.Henry’s fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly a...

Title:The Art of Fielding
Author:
Rating:
ISBN:0316126691
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:512 pages

The Art of Fielding Reviews

  • Tony
    Jul 22, 2011

    I have stood there, with my knees bent, on the balls of my feet. I have watched the signs and where the catcher sets up. I have known with some sense of probability if my pitcher can throw the ball where the glove is set. I have watched the hitter's swing, listened to the sound. I have intuited. So I have moved, left or right, back or in, often before the ball leaves the bat, before life, if you will, comes my way. Another example of how Life, as the columnist Thomas Boswell once mused, imitates

    I have stood there, with my knees bent, on the balls of my feet. I have watched the signs and where the catcher sets up. I have known with some sense of probability if my pitcher can throw the ball where the glove is set. I have watched the hitter's swing, listened to the sound. I have intuited. So I have moved, left or right, back or in, often before the ball leaves the bat, before life, if you will, comes my way. Another example of how Life, as the columnist Thomas Boswell once mused, imitates the World Series.

    Now the ball is safely in my glove, but having bounced first, it can not stay there. I must throw to first. Having already successfully intuited, I must now correctly calculate. For the hitter is now a runner, and I must gauge his speed. I see him, a moving picture in my peripheral vision, flying down the line. I see the first baseman too, but less so. It is partially faith which makes me think he will be there at the terminus of my throw. I grip the laces, hoping it comes clean from my glove, doesn't snag on the webbing. I am off-balance, but I have done this before, which makes it both good and bad. Because I have done this and I have not done this. I have, as they say, hurried a throw. So I have been there, assigned a ticket in life, between Second and Third, when everything can end well, or not. It is not a good thing to be a thinking-man's shortstop and to experience Doubt.

    Henry, the shortstop in this readable but cliched novel, is placed in that moment in Prufrockian terms by the author. When muscle memory should once again get the ball safely to first, and on time, the Love Song rears its head and asks

    You would be hard-pressed to write a better movement of Steve Blass Disease than Chad Harbach did. However, well, the rest of the book sucked.

    The story flies by, as if that's a good thing. But it's Writing 101. Dialogue, shallow to begin with, ends in mid-exchange so, you know, you will want to get to the next chapter to find out what happened. The foreshadowing is so obvious that it almost spoils the plot. (What do you think will happen by the end of the book to the guy smoking cigarettes who is having chest pains in the first 100 pages?). The characters are from central casting. I know, I know, I know. Baseball fiction often tends to magic realism, like when long-dead ballplayers come in from the cornfield. But there's nothing magical here and it's not real. Maybe I'm just a guy who doesn't like liberties taken with my favorite sport. I mean, they could have gotten a better actor than Ray Liotta to play Shoeless Joe, maybe even one who hit left-handed. Here, Harbach has a college team playing back-to-back doubleheaders on consecutive days. That would never happen; don't have enough arms.

    Annoyingly, Harbach insists on infusing his characters with ethnic or gender identity, as if that will do in place of character development. So we have the all-time great retired shortstop, Aparicio Rodriguez (wince). The beautiful gay boy who makes a 60 year-old straight man lose his mind. (Not exactly

    or

    but Harbach woulda if he coulda). The Jewish catcher. There was no reason to make him Jewish except to check another ethnic group off the roster. This college catcher, by the way, decides to go to law school, so he applies to the top six law schools in the country (Yale, Harvard, Stanford, etc). But just those. While Henry the shortstop jumps from Freshman to Junior year in one sentence, the catcher takes a chapter to hold the last letter of rejection or acceptance in his hands, finally letting it open from the steam of the whirlpool. How's that for an existential moment? Hamlet in a steam bath. But we, of course, don't learn whether he was accepted for another several chapters, such is the writing device at play. And of course, if you can't get into the top six law schools, then you can't go to law school. (In my defense, I was trapped on an airplane and down to my last book, so I had no choice but to read on).

    Most grating was Harbach's insistence in making sure that everyone knows he's a card-carrying feminist. So, he will write about the best professor on campus but only use the first initial, so the reader will assume it's a man, when, of course, it's not.

    Same thing with a treating physician. Same thing with a sports agent. But worst of all, to really, really, really prove that he's a feminist, he insists on calling freshmen

    ! Incessantly. For this alone he should roast in Hell and must be stopped.

    How about this: you want to be a feminist, don't treat women like assholes. Given the chance, with the lone female protagonist, he paints her as waffling and male-dependent. Accepted to Yale, Pella never goes, instead hooking up with a married man who calls her

    in condescending fashion. She takes it, letting herself waste away on alcohol and anti-depressants. When she finally breaks away, she floats without bearing, mooring only to have sex as if that's all she was born to do. But to get one last chance to prove his feminist credentials, Harbach gives us this:

    Speaking of sex, Harbach can't or won't write about it. And there were times when it wasn't gratuitous and

    have been written about. But true to device, Harbach ends those chapters with a literary

    .

    Sorry for all the negativity, but as Harbach tells us, "Literature could turn you into an asshole.

  • Andrew Campbell
    Sep 15, 2011

    *mild spoilers*

    100 pages in and the author has already *twice* withheld information from the reader which would be apparent to the character. Is there a name for this?

    The first time it's dialogue overheard by a character, dialogue which the reader is meant to mistake for sex when in fact it's two people lifting weights. But the character is outside the weight room, so there's no chance that /he/ would think it's sexual.

    The next occurrence: one character is straining for a glimpse of another, wor

    *mild spoilers*

    100 pages in and the author has already *twice* withheld information from the reader which would be apparent to the character. Is there a name for this?

    The first time it's dialogue overheard by a character, dialogue which the reader is meant to mistake for sex when in fact it's two people lifting weights. But the character is outside the weight room, so there's no chance that /he/ would think it's sexual.

    The next occurrence: one character is straining for a glimpse of another, worried that his interest will betray his crush. While the identity of this man's interest has not yet been provided to the reader (though simple, literary math makes its deduction almost perfunctory), and so the character's name (the crushee) is not used till the end of the passage, it is known to the crusher.

    Thing is, I get the intended *effect* of both these passages. They're just so calculated for the reader, foreign to the characters.

    ---> Now just under 200 pages in... this is not a good book. It has the appearance of a good book, the elements of a good book, but I'm very close to abandoning it. Plotted and paced like a soap opera, and not nearly as clever as it thinks it is, the writing is middling and its "insights" banal rather than revealing or challenging.

    ---> page 237: a character tries to will himself to have an erection: "Missles, redwoods, the Washington Monument." I wish this was meant to be funny. Seriously, Austin Powers shows more ingenuity with imagery than this book.

    ---> two major characters sleep together for no good reason other than that they're alone in the same room. This may happen in college, but as these two characters have been drawn, it just doesn't ring true- and the consequences of the liaison seem rather convenient for the narrative.

    ---> page 429: "Melville had once called America a seat of snivelization; what Affenlight wanted was a seat of swivelization." This is what passes for "humor" in The Art of Fielding: strained, self-congratulatory literary reference that is not only inorganic but also wastes both words and the reader's time.

    Other demerits: a dramatically timely death; cardboard characterizations of every figure on the fringes of the narrative; abandonment of subplots; "cliffhanger" chapter breaks; withholding of information sheerly for dramatic effect; obvious dialogue. Also, can we get a moratorium on the Saintly Gay Sage character? For pete's sake, this one's nickname is even "the Buddha."

    Yes, now I'm finished. There is a certain satisfaction in the terribleness of The Art of Fielding— particularly when by the end it veers off into John Irving territory. What a pat, pretentious, superficial book. I would call it a waste, but that would mean the writing showed promise.

    The Art of Fielding is to the novel what the summer blockbuster is to the movies: a heavily hyped investment property that appears to contain all the elements of a satisfying story but, on its release, reveals itself as anything but a rewarding experience.

  • Miriam
    Sep 17, 2011

    People love to talk about the "

    " books that aren't good reads. There's also the crap that people call "beach reads" but gobble up without taking seriously. But

    falls under a third category: A book I didn't like so much that I wanted to keep reading it.

    I wanted to like it, I did. I like books that take place in college. I like baseball. I like baseball metaphors even more. but it felt like a book that took 10 years to write and not in a good way. Characters that I imagine

    People love to talk about the "

    " books that aren't good reads. There's also the crap that people call "beach reads" but gobble up without taking seriously. But

    falls under a third category: A book I didn't like so much that I wanted to keep reading it.

    I wanted to like it, I did. I like books that take place in college. I like baseball. I like baseball metaphors even more. but it felt like a book that took 10 years to write and not in a good way. Characters that I imagine Harbach struggled with,

    like he struggled with them and instead of dealing with it, he just left them hanging. He built up Henry and then had him fall apart so very quickly to such extremes AND THEN (spoiler) for no clear reason he makes amends (though I guess the extent of the amends is debatable). I think what bothered me the most though, was that this felt like a Tom Wolfe novel (the most obvious is

    ) but instead of creating complicated characters who have to deal with the consequences of their actions or characters who don't deserve the abundance of good luck that comes their way and know it, his characters are so one-dimensional that as much as I wanted to care about them, I couldn't. There's a benefit to realism, but if you don't create the "real," yet exciting (or at least compelling) characters to go with, why read it?

    I'm not sure why I wanted to keep reading it. Maybe it was in order to respond to people who sing its praises. Maybe it was to be justified in my dislike. Regardless, I propose a new genre of reading: anger reading (better name suggestions welcome).

  • Stuart
    Sep 19, 2011

    I'm from Wisconsin. This book takes place in Wisconsin. I love baseball. This book is about a baseball team from a fictitious Wisconsin college, Westish, which seems like a mix of Ripon and Lawrence. I love that fictitious name by the way. I love that school's absurd tie to Herman Melville as well and its funny Melville-related sports handle, The Harpooners. In a lot of ways, this book is as tailor made for me as a sharp ground ball is to a shortstop eager to make a 6-4-3 double play. It's not s

    I'm from Wisconsin. This book takes place in Wisconsin. I love baseball. This book is about a baseball team from a fictitious Wisconsin college, Westish, which seems like a mix of Ripon and Lawrence. I love that fictitious name by the way. I love that school's absurd tie to Herman Melville as well and its funny Melville-related sports handle, The Harpooners. In a lot of ways, this book is as tailor made for me as a sharp ground ball is to a shortstop eager to make a 6-4-3 double play. It's not surprising that I think that mostly this book is very good or as they say in Wisconsin, where modesty is king, pretty good. But there are flaws as one might expect with a first novel. There are also pet peeves that I have about coming of age, college-located novels that this book brings to the fore.

    Here's the good news. In plain, precise prose, Chad Harbach tells a big-hearted story about five people - four young and one old - trying to find fulfillment and (sometimes) love in a tiny Midwestern college town. The story is well plotted and carefully thought out. Mr. Harbach clearly knows how to write. He's read Moby Dick many times no doubt (I've only read it twice), and essentially turns Melville's ship of men into a baseball team. If you like Moby Dick, you'll probably like this testosterone laden book. If you don't, you probably will hate it or maybe even more likely just be bored.

    There are some slightly sour elements in this book related to my pet peeves. Like almost all college located novels, this one seems to assume that colleges are all about the humanities. That's simply not believable. Less than 10 percent of people major in the humanities at most schools, even liberal arts colleges in Wisconsin. The age of the prominent English professor ended about 30 years ago; he or she doesn't matter anymore. Also this book plays both light and earnest with a sexual relationship between a faculty member and a college student. I found that relationship to be creepy; there was nothing funny or uplifting about it, that's for certain.

    Like many good first novels, this one starts with a bang. The two main characters and their bond are established within the first twenty pages. Also like many good first novels, the author doesn't quite know how to end his story and has use a "how convenient for the author" event to pull the plug. There are many times when characters are moved like marionettes for plot purposes and you can see the strings. But then there is the fun word play - especially with the names of characters and places - and the amusing antics of the characters that make up for the first novel clumsiness. The Art of Fielding is mostly a fun read, droll and often light hearted. The language is crisp. If I scored this novel as a baseball game, I'd say that it was mostly well played. It had a couple of bizarre errors, but the teams showed a lot of hustle, the pitchers were intelligent, there were a couple of home runs, and it was fun to watch. If you're a fan of good writing and baseball, you'll likely get your money's worth.

  • RandomAnthony
    Oct 20, 2011

    Chad Harbach's

    is 2/3rds strong but maybe 100 pages too long. You know that weird paradox you feel when you like a book but kind of wish it was over? I felt that around, oh, page 350 of

    . So while I can recommend the novel, with reservations, I can't make the four star leap.

    The storyline revolves around five characters and readers shouldn't be misled into thinking, as the inside cover description seems to imply, that Henry is the star and the four other cha

    Chad Harbach's

    is 2/3rds strong but maybe 100 pages too long. You know that weird paradox you feel when you like a book but kind of wish it was over? I felt that around, oh, page 350 of

    . So while I can recommend the novel, with reservations, I can't make the four star leap.

    The storyline revolves around five characters and readers shouldn't be misled into thinking, as the inside cover description seems to imply, that Henry is the star and the four other characters lesser lights. The five meet, collaborate, have sex, become codependent (maybe...I'm not sure what “codependent” means) and evolve over the course of a couple years on the campus of a small northeastern Wisconsin college. Water (specifically Lake Michigan) and

    recur as themes that, I would bet, a grad student somewhere is analyzing in a paper right now. Harbach writes in a controlled, professional writer's workshop manner about 80% of the time. His writing is good, clean, and high-quality but, unfortunately, occasionally reads sterile. The "gay guys discovering each other" subplot was trite and predictable. Only in the last fifty pages does he passionately let loose. The novel's end is serene and satisfying. The first 460 pages are more like a clinic on how to write well. Nothing wrong with that. If you like austere, well-constructed novels, you'll like

    . Franzen gives a cover blurb, by the way. He's a good reference point for Harbach; “kind of like Franzen” would describe Harbach well.

    The prominent positioning of baseball in the title and storyline might lead non-sports-oriented (is that a word?) readers to question if this novel is for them. That's a fair inquiry. I bet you expect me to say, “No, you'll like the book even if you don't know much about baseball.” But I won't. Baseball knowledge/appreciation will increase your interest and/or understanding of

    . Too many scenes involve the committed, meditative approach Mike and Henry employ while on the diamond. If you don't know where a shortstop stands in the infield, stay away from this book. You won't get it.

    So I liked

    and expect the novel to garner many end of the year prizes and, possibly, a film deal leading to a serious, oscar-worthy movie. I just can't get passed the idea that, for a week or so before the final push toward the last page, I wasn't looking forward to reading this book much. Maybe the skyrocketing press and reviews raised my expectations too high. It's possible. Recommended with tempered enthusiasm.

  • Peter
    Jan 08, 2012

    Man, I really didn't want to like this book. And here, quickly, are the reasons why:

    Number 1) Pure jealousy. Harbach got paid like a bajillion dollars for his very first novel. I was paid slightly less than that. Okay, a lot less than that.

    Number 2) I don't like n+1 magazine, of which he is the co-founder. I find it pretentious and boring. I would honestly rather read Cat Fancy.

    Number 3) Harbach wrote an article about MFA vs. New York writers that was, in a word, uber-douchy. And anyone who we

    Man, I really didn't want to like this book. And here, quickly, are the reasons why:

    Number 1) Pure jealousy. Harbach got paid like a bajillion dollars for his very first novel. I was paid slightly less than that. Okay, a lot less than that.

    Number 2) I don't like n+1 magazine, of which he is the co-founder. I find it pretentious and boring. I would honestly rather read Cat Fancy.

    Number 3) Harbach wrote an article about MFA vs. New York writers that was, in a word, uber-douchy. And anyone who weighs in on that argument has already told you something about themselves that you'd be best off not knowing.

    So, as you can see, I had all my petty reasons amassed into an army of pre-read hatred. I was ready to unleash the critical beast and be confirmed in my belief that all hyped literary things are, at heart, overrated, particularly new "it" books written by new "it" writers.

    Then I read it.

    And I'll be damned if it isn't a really good book. It's not earth-shattering. It's not even particularly person-shattering. But it's great storytelling, particularly when it comes to the friendship/rivalry of the two baseball players at its core.

    Harbach writes sports with a strong balance of precision and emotional coloration. He literally had me on the edge of my seat during his masterfully-imagined game days. I felt like I could see the whole field expand in front of me, but, on top of the action, I had access to the internal state of the players. And when it came to the wondrous and beleaguered Henry Skrimshander (a note: the names in this book will either be the best or the worst names in literary history, depending on your personal taste), it was fascinating to get inside the mind of a natural who is beginning to deal with the unnatural. And it was just as compelling to see the game from the eyes of Mike Schwartz, the old soul team captain who pops "Vikes" like they're beer nuts.

    Off the diamond, Harbach was a little less successful, but still batting at decent average (Ha! A baseball pun). While I had moments of disbelief with the gay affair that takes up a bit more page space than it likely should have, it was never completely bungled. And the lone female character, Pella, avoided token status with a compelling backstory and a believable case of indecision. Her life is pretty much defined by the men vying for her affections, but it helps (a tiny bit) that she admits this early on and tries to free herself of the affliction.

    The prose is a seemingly-effortless mix of clarity with flourishes of the lyric, particularly in moments of high action. I also really liked all the poetic waxing about America's pastime and the art of being a shortstop.

    On the whole, this was a solid meaty book about surprisingly interesting meat-heads. I cared. I invested. I wanted to be in the locker room of Westish College, post small-stakes win, all the while contemplating suffering, love, perfection, and the infinity pattern of a baseball's red stitching. But when I was done, I was happy to go back to being a barely-coordinated nerd. Less chance of a pulled groin.

  • Teresa
    Mar 26, 2012

    I loved this book! (I suppose it's appropriate that I start off my review like a fan.)

    While reading it, I couldn't help but reflect upon and compare this novel to

    . Both are about college-aged kids (though set in different decades); mental illness is an element in both; and while the love triangle in the Eugenides is paramount, the one here (which is sort of (though not really) a love triangle) is more subtle and more realistically portrayed. (I almost want to say that, exceptin

    I loved this book! (I suppose it's appropriate that I start off my review like a fan.)

    While reading it, I couldn't help but reflect upon and compare this novel to

    . Both are about college-aged kids (though set in different decades); mental illness is an element in both; and while the love triangle in the Eugenides is paramount, the one here (which is sort of (though not really) a love triangle) is more subtle and more realistically portrayed. (I almost want to say that, excepting the baseball, this is the book Eugenides wanted to write.) Literature is prominent in both, but here it has a lighter touch (less pretentious, one might say). There's also a beautifully written, lyrical passage in the Harbach that reminded me of my favorite passage in Eugenides'

    .

    Though I've read

    , it's been awhile and I'm sure I missed some of the references to it in this novel set in a fictional Wisconsin college where Melville is important to its existence. One section in the Harbach evoked (at least for me) E.M. Forster's

    .

    The fictional (the book-within-the-book) "The Art of Fielding" evokes Ted Williams'

    . The fictional author of the book-within-this-book is Aparicio Rodriquez, whose name evokes that of the great shortstop, Luis Aparicio. Though it's not said, I imagined the baseball-loving Rodriquez parents naming their child after Luis. (Also, Henry's chasing of the college record, held by Rodriguez, for consecutive games without an error recalls the chasing of Robin Ventura's college hitting streak by Garrett Wittels a couple of seasons ago.)

    But forget all the comparisons. This book stands on its own merits. It is intelligent, engaging and wry. It is a world unto itself, as most great books are. The characters go on living beyond the page, the story went places unforeseen, and I didn't want it to end. Baseball being a major plot/metaphor/theme (and the way Harbach wrote about it) made it all that much richer for me.

  • Fabian
    May 22, 2013

    UNBELIEVABLE.

    Baseball is, without a doubt, kinda sorta, um... dull. But with near-perfect (actually more perfect than near-perfect) "The Art of Fielding," the passion in the hearts of five individuals will likewise light a passion within the impressionable reader. I am not kidding. I LOVE this novel. I was convinced that "The Marriage Plot", a kindred book-- same time, same themes, same environment-- by Eugenides was the definitive college novel of our times. I am sorry to say (well, not really)

    UNBELIEVABLE.

    Baseball is, without a doubt, kinda sorta, um... dull. But with near-perfect (actually more perfect than near-perfect) "The Art of Fielding," the passion in the hearts of five individuals will likewise light a passion within the impressionable reader. I am not kidding. I LOVE this novel. I was convinced that "The Marriage Plot", a kindred book-- same time, same themes, same environment-- by Eugenides was the definitive college novel of our times. I am sorry to say (well, not really) that this one takes the cake. You care so SOOOOO much for every single fully-realized character, all five of them (I actually developed a crush for Mike, felt horrible for "protagonist" Henry, empathized with silly Pella...)--this is a novel to definitely remain safely within the canon. Take that Roth! Saying that the novel is dead, that literature sucks nowadays--terrible mistake on your part! Everyone, read this immediately. I beg you--! (You will ask, like I did, where the hell is the Pulitzer for this one?!?!)

    I read this in one sitting-- coming home from Vegas is exactly a 12 hour drive. It is a whopping 512 pages. It is THAT superb, my literature-loving friends. Find it. Read it. It's the best book I've read all year. (All decade?)


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