By Max Liu.
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach, Fourth Estate 2012
When Henry Skrimshander starts thinking about what he does on the baseball field, instead of simply playing, he suffers a dip in form that threatens to destroy his dream of Major League stardom. I know how he feels because, after reading and re-reading The Art of Fielding, I was struck by a fastball of self-doubt: what if I couldn’t say what I wanted to say about Chad Harbach’s novel? What if I thought I’d said it when I hadn’t? What if I thought I’d been comprehensive and acute when my efforts, like Henry’s throws, fell short?
Harbach is a writer whose first book happens to be about sport, he isn’t a sports writer. His prose exhibits an aversion to cheap effects and the obvious verbal momentum that sports fiction often thrives on. One of his most interesting characters is Pella, daughter of the handsome, charismatic president of Westish College, where the book is set. Leaving her loveless marriage to an older man, she feels, at 23, washed-up, eclipsed: “She’d gotten so far ahead of the curve that the curve became a circle, and now she was behind.” There are no shortcuts, the important things are hard won, in life and in literature.
Henry’s baseball team are named the Harpooners for Westish’s association with Herman Melville but, rather than hunt in the great outdoors of contemporary themes, Harbach builds stylish sentences and lets the culture come. His protagonists are compelling and likable and Henry’s problems on the baseball field prove pivotal for them all. The college president embarks on a tender, reckless affair with Owen, Henry’s academically gifted roommate, while Pella becomes involved with Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners captain.
In part, Harbach’s characters succumb to the pitfalls that his writing avoids. “Get big,” Schwartz urges his team-mates as they pump iron. They train until they puke but no amount of running up stadium steps at dawn prepares Henry for the perils of self-consciousness. Momentum turns out to be a delusion but, with Schwartz determined to get his team-mate to the Majors, Henry submits to routine because he “knew better than to want freedom… You ate till you were full and then you drank your Superboost because every ounce of muscle meant something. .. one moment simply produced the next.” This last detail encapsulates some of the proceeding without destination that’s involved in writing fiction. The trail of moments, like footprints or words, leads Henry away but it also connects him to his beginning. The daunting sense of stepping out that one experiences when leaving university, as many characters in The Art of Fielding are about to, is a bit like writing.
Sports metaphors encourage us to view life, and even art, as a competition; this is their folly and yet there are more instances when The Art of Fielding mirrors the art of fiction. “(He) threw back his shoulders and walked as tall as his five-nine frame would allow, just like every road-tripping athlete he’d ever seen on TV.” The body may never lie but much amateur sport does self-consciously imitate the professional. The Art of Fielding is not an imitative first novel but a writer can learn from impersonating. Henry’s observation that, “you had to send your words out where they weren’t yours any more,” could be a creative writing class dictum. As could, “moments of inspiration were nothing compared to the elimination of error.”
Harbach reveres American transcendentalists of the nineteenth century but his baseball diamonds are scored on the rolling fields of the modern republic. Scott Fitzgerald, for his reckoning with dreams and the ends of parties, is as present here as he is in Robert Altman‘s film A Prairie Home Companion. Melville’s statue looks on at Westish, Wisconsin as a bust of the Great Gatsby author does at St Paul, Minnesota. I thought of him as the Harpooners traversed the Midwest: “Every guy on that bus… had grown up dreaming of becoming a professional athlete. Even when you realised you’d never make it, you didn’t relinquish the dream, not deep down.” Harbach places the reader on the bus, in the locker room and at the heart of the pre-game huddle as Schwartz turns his stare to nine and gives his aphoristic team-talks. We swing at every pitch and feel Henry’s agony at each wayward throw. Don’t be put off if you know nothing of baseball, having no idea what a shortstop is didn’t prevent me from sharing the Harpooners’ exhilaration at the season’s climax. I would gladly have read until I puked.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Max Liu is a writer and journalist. He lives in North London where he is at work on a novel and a collection of autobiographical essays.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 16th, 2012.