Last night I finished Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding.” It’s a literary fiction book that’s ostensibly about a rising baseball star competing in a small college to get drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals. You can see my obvious attraction, being a Cards baseball fan, but I’m also an avid reader and it had been awhile since I’d read something that takes place in our universe – even if it is fictionalized.
I found the book to be quite well written. There are the physical descriptions of Henry, the main character, playing baseball evoking images of the sort of otherworldly perfection that gets you low draft numbers but the well-crafted adjectives used for the game are matched by the great sort of introspection, motive and doubt that make the characters seem real. The whole story fits together with interlocking pieces so tightly coupled that you can range from baseball to Melville to rising homosexuality to setting description without it ever feeling unnatural. No topic is disconnected, no metaphor unnecessary, no simile unpolished. It was a joy to read pretty much from cover to cover.
As I stated, I’m a baseball fan and there is a certain romanticism about the game that’s soaked into this book. I’m curious as to how a non-fan would take to the use of the games as a cornerstone of the book because baseball is one of the primary methods of creating tension and driving the plot. There are a lot of other factors running in the story, and with some work (or a different sport) the book could stand alone, but those other factors are much more subtle and much less likely to create the kind of grip that makes you reluctant to put a book down. In addition, I was pleased that – and I’m not giving up much of a spoiler here – there is no cliched bottom of the 9th go-ahead home run syrupy ending that one might expect from the structure of the story. It only takes a few chapters before you realize that this book is a lot more than just fantasy wish fulfillment.
In short, “The Art of Fielding” is a great piece of fiction and it’s quite evident that Chad Harbach is both a baseball fan and an excellent writer. It’s clear that this novel was an epic undertaking for him – having spent nine years crafting its immaculate prose. I’m looking forward to seeing if he creates another masterpiece or if this is the sort of one-off story that’s born of intimate personal knowledge that is impossible to reproduce twice in a lifetime.