Art of Fielding (Review)

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The Art of Fielding
Chad Harbach, 2011
528 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
February, 2012
For many reviewers, The Art of Fielding stands alongside Bernard Malamud's The Natural as one of the great baseball classics of all time.

Chad Harbach channels Malamud, to be sure, but Herman Melville is his real muse. Melville is here in the quirky asides and even more in the dark Romantic theme of life as unknowable, undefinable, and indescribable.

Henry Skrimshander is a boy genius. He's preternaturally gifted with the ability to predict the direction of any hit off a player's bat, scoop it up, and shoot it hard and straight to where it needs to go. His form is effortless, graceful, pure, and above all mysterious.

Henry's Bible is The Art of Fielding by the famed (and ficticious) infielder Aparicio Rodriguez. Aparicio writes with a Zen-like mysticism: "one moves with the ball" while "dissapating the self, which is the source of all suffering and poor defense."

From freshman year on, as Henry trains at Wisconsin's Westish College, his gift is transformed from art into a precision-like machine. Push-ups, crunches, 5 a.m. stadium runs, up and down the steps, touching the hard metal section number at the top of each flight...to count, to track, to measure...something that can't really be measured. Talent scouts pour into the obscure little campus to watch and to place a precise dollar value on Henry's extraordinary gift.

All of this is an attempt to pin down Henry's "wing"—to know it, possess it, make it accountable and countable. If you know anything of Melville, you know those efforts will be in vain.

Four other characters surround Henry and give the book its emotional heft: Mike Schwartz, Henry's teammate, mentor and trainer; Owen Dunne his gay, precocious, roommate and also teammate; Guert Affenlight, college president; and Pella Affenlight, Guert's daughter returned home after a failed marriage.

The fate of all five become intertwined, layering the story with multiple dreams and desires, and the vagaries of fortune.

Confession: I know nothing, nada, about baseball; but The Art of Fielding is riveting, a deeply humane and beautifully written novel. Baseball fan or not, this book's a keeper.

See our Reading Guide for The Art of Fielding.


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