The Art of Fielding tells the tale of college baseball prodigy Henry Skrimshander, a shortstop who loses his handle on perfection and goes from errorless to ineffectual in the time it takes a ball to travel from between second and third base into the dugout. Set in a fictional liberal arts school in the Midwest, Henry’s downfall acts as a hub around which four other characters revolve. The venerable college president, one Guert Affenlight, finds himself in an affair with a young male student, Owen Dunne. Skrimshander’s mentor and best friend, Mike Schwartz, fails to get into the five top law schools while watching his protégé become a failure. Mixed in with the group is Affenlight’s brilliant but lost daughter, Pella, who comes to the story from a failed marriage.
The novel is unassailably nerdy about literature. Moby Dick, or “The Book” as it is sometimes called, features prominently in the setting. The college baseball team is called the Harpooners, a statue of Herman Melville stands watch on campus, and the sorority girls wear t-shirts with Melville-inspired innuendo. The reader is nearly bruised with all the literary nudging. These flourishes don’t necessarily interfere with the story, but they are representative of Harbach’s style, which can’t seem to decide whether it’s winking or declaiming.
Take the characters names: Henry Skrimshander’s name evokes scrimshaw or the carving of whale ivory. Living up to his name, precious Henry is taken in by the captain of the team and carved into something more beautiful and delicate. The President’s daughter, Pella, is named after a sacked city looted of its treasures, and so this brilliant young woman must rebuild herself. The aging president is named Affenlight, and his biracial love interest is named Dunne. The names here seem to distract more than serve. But Harbach’s characters and their struggles for identity are still believable, and for every eye-roll-inducing appellation he offers a moment of insight.
When Pella begins to fulfill her deep need wash the dishes for Schwartz, whom she has just met, she reflects on how he will take it. “It was a nice gesture to do somebody else’s dishes, but it could also be construed as an admonishment: ‘If nobody else will clean up this shithole, I’ll do it myself!’” This sort of tactical thinking pervades many of the relationships, and is one of the stronger aspects of the novel.
Given his background as an n+1 editor, it is worth noting that Harbach indulges in frequent comparisons between baseball and literature, and how these two forms of entertainment work to capture our attention. “But baseball was different. Schwartz thought of it as Homeric—not a scrum but a series of isolated contests. Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball. […] You stood and waited and tried to still your mind. When your moment came, you had to be ready, because if you fucked up, everyone would know whose fault it was.”
Harbach’s extended comparisons between the baseball and literature can be illuminating. He shows how baseball and fiction move along in a deliberate manner, and the spectator finds himself absorbed in the action waiting for something to happen—a major plot point revealed, the bat striking the ball. As the player waits, the spectator waits as well, and we all become vicarious athletes, anticipating, wondering how we would’ve reacted. Fiction forces the reader to do something similar. And while we celebrate those moments when the tension is broken, it is the suspense carrying us from moment to moment that actually fuels our desire to witness a game or story. Of course, Harbach is smart enough to point out pertinent differences.
“Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn’t matter how beautifully you performed sometimes, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you mad. You weren’t a painter or writer—you didn’t work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn’t just your masterpieces that counted […] Moments of inspiration were nothing compared to elimination of error.”
Writers will often speak of their characters taking over, and the novel being the result of witnessing character action rather than choreographing it. But the writer still has ample opportunity to finesse the action through revision. In the split second it takes to throw a ball, there can be no deliberation. In fact, Skrimshander’s failures on the field stem directly from his thinking versus acting. It’s interesting to note that we expect much from our authors because they get an opportunity to edit and hone their works, but we expect even more excellence from athletes, who get no opportunity for revision. Maybe that’s why they get all the girls.
The Art of Fielding takes on much as it investigates the bookends of adult life: the undergraduate experience on one side, and retirement on the other. While Harbach’s prose is deft, his characters intriguing and well-wrought, the novel does little to inspire empathy. Perhaps this is because all the characters are superlative. Skrimshander’s talent as a shortstop is legendary. Pella reads Pynchon at breakneck speed and retains it all. Dunne is so well-read and enlightened that his teammates call him Buddha. One expects great folly from great characters, or at least a fall from grace. But Harbach doesn’t allow them to redeem themselves so much as give them pert escapes. This is especially jarring in a novel with strong allegiances to Moby Dick. In the end we are left with a tale of minor struggle and minor growth, a tale of characters trying to discover where they will find themselves in the territory that lies between their talents, their ambitions, and their desires.
– Paul Gasbarra holds an MFA from UNC Wilmington. He is mostly a schlub who enjoys reading things from time to time and attempting to make intelligent comments about them.