Making it look easy
From the September, 2014 issue
Editor's note: This event has been canceled.
I read The Art of Fielding because it was a new baseball novel. I found out it was about a lot more than baseball.
In Chad Harbach's debut novel, published in 2011, the sport is a metaphor for the tricky game of life--which, like baseball, is full of failures and losses. Set at a small fictional Midwestern liberal arts college, the novel traces the arc of a shortstop with a magic glove and an obscure handbook who finds out that adulthood throws you a lot of curveballs.
It's an honest and frank book, whose lessons about tolerance, persistence, love, and loyalty are lightly doled out. Harbach's writing is as smooth and economical as a big-league infielder scooping up a hard-hit grounder and throwing it to first: he makes it look easy. Unlike many of today's novelists, Harbach has no need for show-offish plot trickery or verbal grandstanding. In the end you're surprised how rewarding this book is, because reading it is so effortless.
Its coming-of-age story has so many good characters and juicy subplots that it's no wonder that HBO has picked up an option on the book. Even though the story centers around a bromance and a baseball team, the women in the novel are fully drawn and essential, and a main character, the protagonist's roommate, is gay. The characters are realistic, nuanced, and deeply flawed, but mostly quite appealing.
Like many young writers, Harbach struggled for years to finish his master's degree and produce a debut novel. Having known a writer or two who's gone through the same struggle, I find it gratifying that this one found such success. He handles it all like a seasoned pro. The Art of Fielding is artful indeed.
Though easy to swallow, The Art of Fielding is as ambitious as the scope of a 162-game season, and at some points as daring as a suicide squeeze. It explores the sorts of wishful thinking common to baseball--and to
being a young adult in college. Life is no mere spectator sport but requires a suspension of disbelief. As Harbach describes a player on the bench watching a teammate during a crucial at-bat, he understands the deep but wacky theology of such leaps of faith: "Henry [...] tried to find a pose that would help. Deep down, he thought, we all believe we're God. We secretly believe that the outcome of the game depends on us, even when we're only watching--on the way we breathe in, the way we breathe out, the T-shirt we wear [...]"
So make sure you wear your lucky T-shirt to Harbach's reading at UMMA on September 18.
[Originally published in September, 2014.]
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