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Art of Fielding (Harbach)

The Art of Fielding
Chad Harbach, 2011
Little, Brown & Company
528 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780316126694


Summary
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 and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry's gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners' team captain and Henry's best friend, realizes he has guided Henry's career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert's daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.

As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process they forge new bonds, and help one another find their true paths.

Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth, The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment—to oneself and to others. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—ca. 1975-76
Where—Wisconsin, USA
Education—B.A., Harvard University; M.F.A.,
   University of Virginia.
 Currently—lives in Brookly, New York, New York.


Chad Harbach grew up in Wisconsin and was educated at Harvard and the University of Virginia. He is a cofounder and coeditor of n+1.  (From the publisher.)



Book Reviews
Not only a wonderful baseball novel—it zooms immediately into the pantheon of classics, alongside The Natural by Bernard Malamud and The Southpaw by Mark Harris—but it's also a magical, melancholy story about friendship and the coming of age that marks the debut of an immensely talented writer.... Mr. Harbach has the rare abilities to write with earnest, deeply felt emotion without ever veering into sentimentality, and to create quirky, vulnerable and fully imagined characters who instantly take up residence in our hearts and minds. He also manages to re-work the well-worn, much-allegorized subject of baseball and make us see it afresh, taking tired tropes about the game (as a metaphor for life's dreams, disappointments and hopes of redemption) and interjecting them with new energy. In doing so he has written a novel that is every bit as entertaining as it is affecting.... You don't need to be a baseball fan to fall under this novel's spell, but The Art of Fielding possesses all the pleasures that an aficionado cherishes in a great, classic game: odd and strangely satisfying symmetries, unforeseen swerves of fortune, and intimations of the delicate balance between individual will and destiny that play out on the field.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times


Chad Harbach makes the case for baseball, thrillingly, in his slow, precious and altogether excellent first novel.... It seems a stretch for a baseball novel to hold truth and beauty and the entire human condition in its mitt, well The Art of Fielding isn't really a baseball novel at all, or not only. It's also a campus novel and a bromance (and for that matter a full-fledged gay romance), a comedy of manners and a tragicomedy of errors...Welcome to the big leagues, kid. Now get out there and play.
Gregory Cowles - New York Times Book Review


all in all the most delightful and serious first book of fiction that I have read in a while.... Baseball matters desperately in this novel. But so does physical affection and, whether felt by a freshman or a college president, the unquenchable desire to know another human being in a deep and important way before the end of things. In this regard, the novel takes its place among a few charmed works of art that deal with the national pastime in the context of human yearning - books by superb writers such as Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Mark Harris. It also stands among the best school novels we have, from This Side of Paradise to A Separate Peace.
Alan Cheuse - Chicago Tribune


Delightful debut... Erudite enough to reference Herman Melville, Homer and T.S. Eliot, yet sufficiently geeky to pay homage to the epic struggles of ill-fated ball-players such as Steve Blass, Steve Sax and Mackey Sasser.... [A] showcase for...Harbach's mad skills, his humor and above all, the humanity with which the author infuses each of his characters....The author's observations about baseball can be both pithy and witty... wonderfully insightful. And the writing throughout, as Walt Whitman once said of the game itself, is glorious...a natural talent, one who has the potential to become a Hall of Famer.
Adam Langer - San Francisco Chronicle


Dazzling debut.... The Art of Fielding might be the best book you'll read this year.... Harbach's debut novel has a succulent heft to it—a growing weight of love and devotion that is comprised of Harbach's deft and boundlessly emotive writing. The remarkable sincerity with which he develops characters renders their conflicts and complexities so authentic it's impossible not to care about them. The Art of Fielding is youthful, invigorating and fiercely intelligent writing.... [It] is not really a book about baseball. Westish College sports are a backdrop as life's more prevalent struggles--doubt, romance, grief and determination--collide and merge marvellously.... This is a book about love, family and dedication...A nearly flawless construction of dazzlingly clear sentences... The most enjoyable aspect of The Art of Fielding is the true-to-life humanity Harbach's characters are infused with. Their heartache, loss and yearning are palpable. The Art of Fielding brims with its author's extraordinary talents. It's going to be hard waiting to see what Harbach does next.
Alex Lemon - Dallas Morning News


His first time at bat, Harbach wins. Confident and deliberate, Art imitates baseball.... The Art of Fielding is an old-fashioned novel in the very best way—unhurried , engrossing, a universe unto itself.... It's that rare, big social novel with the quiet confidence not to overreach for grand statements on the times, and a debut that never feels like it's straining to impress. There's just quiet confidence in honest storytelling—Harbach is all Derek Jeter, not Alex Rodriguez.... Harbach's images are so lively and surprising, his characters so intoxicatingly engaging, that The Art of Fielding becomes something special and unique, a complete and satisfying fictional universe....Harbach, in his first time at bat, has made the near-impossible act of writing a very good American novel feel almost effortless.
David Daley - USA Today


Debut novel hits a grand slam... Resplendent... Ambitious and accomplished... Harbach's characters are well developed and eminently realistic. The rich portrayals of their psychological struggles and interactions add a warmth and dept to the already colorful narrative....Harbach's novel is mature, compelling, graced with both charm and humor, and shaped as much by his expressive prose as by its memorable and substantive characterizations. Harbach is a gifted storyteller and his debut novel may well herald a fresh, new talent in the realm of contemporary American fiction. The Art of Fielding, like baseball itself, is beautiful in its simplicity, yet made great by the effortless subtlety of its many nuanced intricacies.
Jeremy Barber - Sunday Oregonian


Recalling works as disparate as Chaim Potok's The Chosen, John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, and Scott Lasser's Battle Creek, Harbach's big-hearted and defiantly old-fashioned debut demonstrates the rippling effects of a single baseball gone awry. When college shortstop phenom Henry Skrimshander accidentally beans teammate Owen Dunne with a misplaced throw, it starts a chain reaction on the campus of Westish College, "that little school in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin." Owen is solicitously visited in the hospital by school president Guert Affenlight, a widower, who falls in love with the seductive gay student, a "serious breech of professional conduct" that sends potentially devastating ripples through the school. Affenlight's daughter, Pella, after a failed marriage in San Francisco, returns to become part of a love triangle with Henry and Mike Schwartz, the team captain and Henry's unofficial mentor. And just when Henry's hopes of playing for the St. Louis Cardinals come within reach, he suffers a crisis of confidence, even as his team makes a rousing run at the championship. Through it all, Henry finds inspiration in the often philosophically tinged teachings found in The Art of Fielding ("Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does"), by a fictional retired shortstop. Harbach manages incisive characterizations of his five main players, even as his narrative, overlong and prone to affectation, tests the reader's patience.
Publishers Weekly


In this deft first novel, a baseball prodigy comes to Westish College, a small school in upper Wisconsin. Henry Skrimshander is recruited by Mike Schwartz, who plays at Westish and recognizes Henry as one of the greatest shortstops ever. Henry's roommate, the pot-smoking, gay, African American Owen Dunne, also joins the team. College president Guert Affenlight develops a passionate crush on Owen, with whom he improbably begins a clandestine relationship. Unfortunately, as Henry closes in on a fielding milestone, he loses his confidence and falls apart. Guert's long-lost daughter, who has returned to Westish after the collapse of her marriage and hooked up with Mike, tries to help Henry find his throwing arm again. Meanwhile, the ongoing affair between Owen and Guert becomes increasingly difficult to hide as the book climaxes at the Division III national championship. Verdict: Succeeding on many levels, this highly enjoyable and intelligent novel offers several coming-of-age tales set against the background of an exciting and convincing baseball drama. Harbach paints a humorous and resonant portrait of a small college community while effectively portraying the Wisconsin landscape and a lake that provides an almost mystical source of solace and renewal. —Jim Coan, SUNY Coll. at Oneonta
Library Journal


Discussion Questions
1. Does male friendship always involve competition? In what ways? Can men ever be just friends? Are their relationships more competitive than those between women?

2. After a long streak of errorless games, why does Henry lose his once-effortless throw? What has changed in Henry? Do you think this sort of crisis is unique to athletics? Could, say, a painter go through a similar crisis?

3. Harbach never writes from Owen’s point of view. In what ways did this affect your understanding of Owen’s character? Of his feelings toward Guert? Is their relationship one-sided, or perfectly reciprocal?

4. Mike devotes much of his time and energy to mentoring and helping Henry. Does he give Henry too much of his time and energy? Can someone give too much?

5. After hitting Owen and losing his accuracy, Henry immerses himself in grueling physical activity: running the stadium steps, racing Starblind, doing endless chin-ups, swimming in the lake. Why does he do this? Is his body to blame for his throwing problems? Discuss the relationship between the body and the mind in The Art of Fielding.

6. Are Pella and Henry in love? What brings them together? Why do they stay together?

7. Guert is decades older than Mike, Henry, Owen, and Pella, but in what ways is he similar to the students, despite his age?

8. “Monomania”—the obsessive pursuit of a single thing—is one of the major themes of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Is it also a major theme of The Art of Fielding? If so, for which characters, and in what ways?

9. The athletes talk about sacrificing their bodies to get better, and the "sacrifice bunt" is a baseball term that comes up frequently. Is Henry sacrificing himself when he stops eating? Why? Is his last at bat a sacrifice?

10. Are Mike, Henry, and Pella all striving for perfection? Is perfection possible? Is it worth striving for, even if it’s impossible? Why or why not? Do their desires evolve over the course of the novel? In what ways?

11. When Affenlight is confronted about his relationship with Owen, he thinks: "What kind of conversation would they be having if Owen were a girl? Bruce would be using the same legalese, the expression on his face would still be stern, but he’d be pouring himself a scotch. The gleam in his eye would say, Good for you, Guert. Still got it, eh?" Do you think this is true? Would you have seen Guert differently?

12. Why does Pella exhume her father’s body and bury it in the lake?

13. In Aparicio Rodriguez's The Art of Fielding, he writes: "There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being." He adds: "Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few." What do you think this means? How does it relate to Chad Harbach’s book?

14. It has been said that baseball is a metaphor for life. Do you agree? Why or why not?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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