The Art of Fielding – Chad Harbach

The Art of FieldingThis is the first book review for my newly minted blog, Reading to Write. The Art of Fielding is Chad Harbach’s debut novel, and the main reason for reading it, along with its good reviews, since I’ve been writing my own first novel.

This book is about baseball and despite the fact that I live in a country where the game is almost never played, and when it is, certainly not very often by women, I really enjoyed it. I think its because I love being immersed in worlds I know nothing about when I read fiction. But it has to be realist fiction, something that someone, somewhere, does experience. I love the minute details of a new subject, woven into the story of its characters, even when I don’t fully understand the language that is being used. As in the case of this book, which is densely packed with descriptions of innings, pitches and fielding and all the other minute of baseball. Though I have to admit that I have been to a couple of American baseball games, and I did play the game in a social work team when I was there on sabbatical a few years ago, so I’m probably more conversant with America’s favourite sport than some Australians.

The Art of Fielding is the story of Henry Skrimshander, a high school kid who is spotted by Mike Schwartz, a college baseball player and recruited to play for the Westish harpooners, a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. The title refers to a book Henry knows inside out and from which he has in part learned the craft of being an exceptionally good short stop.

The story is set at Westish college and revolves around Henry, Mike, Henry’s room mate Owen Dunne, Guert Affenlight, the president of the college, and his daughter Pella. Each of these main characters is given their own third person, close point of view narrative, with the exception of Owen. But baseball is just the template on which the story rests – the themes of male friendship, social isolation, power in relationships, and the pursuit of perfection are all in there.

The story is set up with its inciting event at around 15% into the story (I’m forensically analysing structure at the moment, because its what I need to address with my next draft) at one of the Harpooner’s home games. Major league scouts, hearing about Henry’s exceptional ability as a short stop, are watching the game. Guert Affenlight is also watching because he’s developed what he describes as a crush on the gay Owen, who also plays in the team. Owen is in the dugout, as usual reading a book rather than watching the game, when one of Henry’s throws from shortstop goes wayward and hits him square in the face.

This triggers the start of a bad run for Henry, who struggles to regain his confidence and we are invested enough in his fortune to really want him to get over his attack of ‘Steve Blass disease’, so named after an all-star pitcher in the ’70s who inexplicably lost his ability to throw the ball accurately. Or what we more poetically call it in Australia, a ‘choker’.

It also marks the start of Affenlight’s increasing infatuation with Owen, and introduces his daughter Pella, who is running away from her husband in San Francisco and becomes entangled in the other character’s lives.

I think Chad Harbach’s greatest strength in this book is how he draws out and ratchets up the tension from this moment on. We are sure that things are going to get worse from here on and there’s great incentive to continue reading to find out just how. It really does feel like a gripping read as the impending sense of doom builds.

The characters are well drawn and I think have their own distinctive voices, which is something first novelists often fail to achieve and something I know I just have not managed so far with my first draft. The intensity of the relationship between Mike and Henry is really well done, seen through the prism of college sportsmen and the lengths they will go to push their bodies to the limit and beyond. I like the fact that Henry’s emotional emptiness is not overplayed but only becomes obvious over time.

As this book could be regarded in some ways as a coming of age novel, or bildungsroman, its interesting that one of the things it lacks is showing the reader the relationship between the young characters and their parents, with the exception of Pella and her father, President Affenlight. We know that Henry is from a working class background and Mike has had a rough upbringing and has lost his parents, but we don’t really get to see remembered scenes that might explain how these characters have come to have the flaws they do.

The multiple close third person point of view technique I have to say I didn’t really like, although it didn’t intrude too much on my enjoyment of the story. I suppose it inevitably puts a bit of distance between the reader and character and almost seems too much like wanting to have your cake and eat it too. I meant I wasn’t as invested in one or other character as I might have been.

The author’s writing style is great – neither overblown nor plain but with some really great metaphors that are used very sparingly and have more impact for it. One of my favourites was:  ‘The pumpkin sun had impaled itself on the spire of Westish Chapel and begun to bleed.’ I also though the dialogue was good; at least  I never found it jarring. He also avoids letting his characters make clever aphorisms, one of my pet hates because it almost always seems to be a case of the writer trying to be clever, rather than something his or her characters would actually think or say. Few people can write like Oscar Wilde. Reviewers of this book have talked about the ”ready digestibility’ and ‘stridently unexperimental’ nature of Harbach’s style, as if that were a bad thing. I much prefer this kind of writing done well, than overblown, try-hard innovators who can so easily get it wrong. Maybe its a case of the difference between what critics and the public want, if there is a difference.

The relationship between Pella and the boys is also interesting and generally well done, though I do struggle to accept that she’s more than a love interest but to be fair, she does have her own trajectory and is given a fair bit of airtime. But it does make me think about how to incorporate a so-called ‘love interest’ character, for want of a better word. Its something I’m really struggling with in my own book. And that brings me to another problem – writing about relationships and sex in fiction. I wonder if men writing mainly about men find this easier because they don’t run the risk of being branded ‘chick-lit’, which these days seems to be denigrating rather than complimentary to women writers. But men sure do run the risk of winning the most dreaded literary award, the ‘Bad sex’ award, which has been won by far more of them than women. No danger of that here though – The Art of Fielding doesn’t dwell very long on the sex scenes and handles them well.

Overall then, this book has lots of strengths and is a very enjoyable read but the thing that really lets it down for me is the ending. It drags on too long, seems unconvincing and unnecessary. That brings me to one of the key issues with the plot trajectory – which event is in effect, the climax? Most other reviewers seem to think its the very odd scene in the last chapter, but to me the climax comes a few chapters earlier, in Chapter 76, where Henry realises he has redeemed himself in his own eyes, and that of his mentor and friend Mike. All the rest after that is denouement and it fits the usual structure. The climax comes 92% of the way through (got to love the Kindle) and then the last 8% is devoted to tying up loose ends. The problem is they are too tied up and I would have liked to have more left up to the reader to imagine for themselves.

In any case, I think this is a great book that (probably) justifies the hype, even if you don’t know anything about baseball.