The biggest reason I enjoyed the novel — and I think you will too, especially if you're a baseball fan — is that it's as authentic as they come; authenticity being the No. 1 factor in a good sports novel, in my view. I mean, when a writer totally flubs sports jargon in a novel (i.e, "He got a homerun," or "He made a touchdown,"), even if not critical to the plot, not only does Matt Christopher roll over in his grave, but to me that writer has lost credibility for his/her novel at large. Writing about sports and making it sound authentic is tricky — perhaps one of many reasons why there are so few good sports novels.
Harbach, though, absolutely nails it. He clearly knows and understands baseball and writes about it as realistically as any novelist I've ever read. And he doesn't dumb it down. That was my No. 1 fear going into this novel — that the baseball scenes would be cheesy and cliche. Not so here at all. Hell, the whole plot hinges on a little-known "condition" called Steve Blass Disease, made famous by a 1970s Pirates pitcher who suddenly and inexplicably lost his control. Harbach clearly understands the big-picture view of baseball — its quirks, superstitions and deference to history. But even on a granular level, passages like the following illustrate just how adept Harbach is at rendering in-game scenes authentically and in a way that's fun and exciting to read:
"In the bottom of the fourth, finally, and Opentoe batter laced a low shot into the hole between short and third. Henry broke toward it with typical quickness, snapped it up cleanly on the backhand side. As he set his feet to throw, though, the ball seemed to get stuck in his glove. He had to rush the throw, which flew low and wide of the bag. Rick O'Shea stretched to full length and scooped it out of the dirt, lifted his glove to show the ump he had the ball."
But this novel has much wider appeal than just a baseball novel. Indeed, if you're not a baseball fan, to you, this will probably be more a story about relationships. But instead of continuing to talk in abstractions, let's take a look at the story.
|Ankiel had one of the most famous cases of Blass Disease|
But speaking of quirk, Guert Affenlight, the previously heterosexual president of Westish (which is a fictional liberal arts school in northern Wisconsin) finds himself head-over-heals infatuated with Owen (Owen actually is gay). And so the rest of the story chronicles how Henry deals with his affliction and how Owen and the president deal with their budding love. Guert's daughter Pella and Mike Schwartz are also caught up in the maelstrom, and no one's life will ever be the same.
Only time will truly tell if The Art of Fielding will join The Natural and The Brothers K in pantheon of great baseball novels. It's definitely not a perfect novel — Harbach can be long-winded at times and part of the resolution is a tad, for lack of a better word, preposterous (nothing to do with baseball, thankfully). So I'd give this four and a half stars. Still, to paraphrase a common Owen-ism: "You are skilled, Chad Harbach. I exhort you." And furthermore, as my all-time favorite baseball broadcaster Marty Brennaman is fond of saying, "If you swing the bat, you're dangerous." And Harbach has definitely swung for the hallowed fences of baseball literature lore.
(One other note: I loved the names in this novel. Henry Skrimshander, Guert Affenlight, Owen Dunne, Adam Starblind, etc. I felt like it may have been a tribute to the goofy names in Philip Roth's The Great American Novel — another terrific baseball novel.)