I certainly got my money’s worth from Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Harbach’s debut offers everything I love to find in a novel: genuine characters, an engaging plot and an affecting take on the human condition. Over the course of the several years covered in The Art of Fielding, Harbach’s five central characters muddle through experiences that teach the reader something new about what it means to face, if not always overcome, failure.
Henry Skrimshander, Mike Schwartz, Owen Dunne and Guert and Pella Affenlight are loosely connected when The Art of Fielding begins. However, when a rare bad throw from Henry at a pivotal moment injures fellow teammate/roommate Owen, the star shortstop’s waning confidence affects each member of the group. Henry’s promising professional career is threatened by his inability to cope with the realization that hard work does not always yield success; Mike realizes that his mentorship of Henry has detracted his focus from his own career and happiness; Owen’s injury leads him into an inappropriate romantic entanglement; Guert’s involvement with the group renders him helplessly and dangerously in love; and soon-to-be-divorced Pella Affenlight’s attempt at a new beginning is jeopardized by yet another romance.
As the title suggests, the sport of baseball is at the heart of this coming-of-age novel. Fortunately, however, Harbach uses the metaphor in a new and interesting way. Instead of fixating on the disciplinary or redemptive aspects of the sport, Harbach chooses instead to focus on the statistic most important to defensive players: the error. As a player, Henry is renowned for his defensive ability, specifically his streak of consecutive games without committing any of the aforementioned errors. However, Henry is indeed human, and as such, cannot sustain this streak interminably. When the streak finally ends in dramatic fashion, Henry’s confidence is shattered and he subsequently finds himself incapable of completing even the most perfunctory throws. Harbach’s novel shines as Henry deals with his capacity for failure, demonstrating through the thoughtful sport of baseball this intrinsic element of the human condition.
While the characters and plot made The Art of Fielding hard to put down, a few negative features of the novel slightly mar the overall experience. While I found the characters believable, I had trouble with the author’s apparent sympathy toward some of their actions. For example, though I found Guert Affenlight to be a generally attractive and likeable character, I could not condone his romantic affair and found the author’s forgiveness toward it a bit troublesome.
Also, while I liked that Harbach enhanced his casual style of writing with elevated athletic and literary references, the effect was at times confusing. I got the sense that Harbach toyed with the idea of utilizing both “literary” and “accessible” styles of writing, but ultimately ended up with an amalgam of the two that was a bit subpar in comparison to other contemporary writers.
Overall, I loved the time I spent reading Chad Harbach’s fantastic debut The Art of Fielding. If this novel is any indication of what is on the horizon for contemporary literature, then we are all in for a treat!