I should have read this book last year. It caught my eye when it first came into the shop and there was a buzz about the book going around but unfortunately it slipped through the cracks for me. This is a wonderful novel that looks and sounds like a book about baseball, but it’s not. Baseball is the portal in which we enter and follow the novel’s characters lives but in the end it is about life not a game. But for two of the central characters baseball does feel like all there is to life.
I’m not a baseball fan but I did play it briefly growing up before shifting to cricket, so I do know a little bit about the game although I don’t think it is crucial to enjoy this book. What the book did remind me of was Ken Burns’ excellent documentary series Baseball, which was a complete history of the game from its origins through to where baseball is today. And in telling this story Burns also told the story of America. The Art of Fielding is similar but at a much more micro level. In telling the story of one young man and his journey to become a baseballer Chad Harbach gives us insight into so much more.
Rather than being a novel about baseball The Art of Fielding is more your classic American college novel. A genre I am a big fan of for some reason. It is also a genre I think is uniquely American. I cannot think of any Australian novels set on a university campus (although there is probably one or two) nor can I think of many British university novels. But there is a strong and continuing tradition in American literature; The Secret History, The Marriage Plot, Wonderboys to name but a few.
The story centres on Henry, an unlikely baseballer who through hard work and dedication has become a star short stop which has opened the way for him to attend college and now has scouts and agents circling. He couldn’t have gotten to where he was without the help of Mike Schwartz, the heart and soul of school sport at Westish College. But part of Mike resents the fact that Henry is on the cusp of hitting it big and when Henry’s all important throwing arm gets the ‘yips’ things start to fall apart. Added to the mix is a complex relationship between Henry’s roomate Owen, the college President Guert Affenlight and his daughter Pella and you have an absolute gem of a novel.
Don’t dismiss this as a novel about sport. It is so much more than that. This is a book that will make you laugh, cry, cheer and have you on the edge of your seat. It is about life and all its ups and downs, joys and despairs. This is what good fiction is all about.