Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Art of Fielding: A Baseball Fan's Baseball Novel...With a Twist

I love baseball. Always have. In fact, my one and only bar trick is to be able to recite on command any or every World Series winner since 1972. Name a year, I'll tell you the winner. And so, as an enormous baseball fan, I couldn't have been more delighted to spend a couple weeks with Chad Harbach's debut novel The Art of Fielding.

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
Henry Skrimshander is a smooth-fielding shortstop who, along with his mentor Mike Schwartz, have double-handedly turned the Westish College baseball program from laughing-stock to powerhouse. Henry is about to break the all-time collegiate record for error-less games in a row, previously held by his idol Aparicio Rodriguez (not a real baseball player, if you're wondering). But, suddenly, quirk strikes — as it so often does in baseball. Henry makes an errant throw that drills his bench-bound roommate Owen in the skull. And after that, Henry can't seem to make the routine throw to first anymore — the notorious Steve 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.)



  1. Oh, great! I read a really awful baseball novel over the summer and have been looking for a good one ever since. Glad I came across your review - I'll have to check this one out. I'm a huge baseball fan, myself.

  2. It's not just sports novels that can be ruined by getting the jargon wrong! I had to stop reading Salman Rushdie's "The Earth Beneath Her Feet" because the man clearly knows nothing about playing guitar or rock music. It was wholly unbelievably wrong and I couldn't make it past the first chapter.

    Have you read "The Brothers K?" My baseball-loving girlfriend swears by that one.

    ~scott bailey

  3. Somehow I missed the Brothers K mention in your post. Oops.

    ~scott bailey

  4. I always thought it was Joe Nuxhall who said that if you swing the bat you're dangerous.

  5. @Julie - Yeah, if you love baseball, you'll love this, I think. What was the really bad baseball novel you just read?

    @Scott - Oh, you're absolutely right that getting the jargon wrong in any form is a turn-off. Since I know sports so well, I tend to hold writers to a much higher standard when they dip their toes there. Not hard to believe that Rushdie isn't a rock aficionado! ;) And, yes, The Brothers K is awesome.

    @Anonymous - Well, I think they both said it, but since Joe's no longer with us, and Marty's still saying it, I think I'm still accurate, there.

  6. OK so I can't say I'm personally sold on the novel, mostly because of the baseball/sports stuff which seems to make my brain shut down. However, I do plan on semi-forcing this on Boyfriend who is a bit of a baseball fanatic. And by semi-forcing I mean I showed him it at a bookstore the other day and he was intrigued but skeptical. I told him as soon as your review was posted I'd share with him. I think this will convince him to pick it up

  7. I'm glad to read a review from a baseball fan--I was wondering how it would hold up. I really enjoyed the book, but am not at all a sports person. Like you mentioned, for me the novel was more about the characters and their relationships. The good news is that it is solid on that end too: you don't need to be a baseball fan to enjoy it. I don't remember long-winded portions...trying to think...

  8. I really need to get my hand son this. Thanks for adding your review as a baseball fan. I am a huge reader and, dare I confess, an even bigger baseball fan...like old school, talk-to-my-grandpa-about-the-good-old-days, fan fo the actual game not just like, Johnny Damon.

  9. I have this and cannot wait to read it. I grew up watching baseball, and baseball movies (the oldies are my fave), and in high school, it was *the* thing a couple of my guy friends and I did all the time - we'd head out to a diamond and one would bat and the other two would catch. Sometimes it was just two of us, and I'll never forget racing across the outfield and making spectacular catches, if I do say so myself. :) I can't say I still know all the terms and the right way to say stuff, but I love it all anyway. I skipped my high school grad, even though I'd won a couple awards, to watch Joe Carter clinch the World Series for the Jays (what year? haha!)!

    One of my favourite books on my shelves is called Strictly from Brooklyn, by William Heuman, and of course features the Dodgers. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/baseballart/183878028/in/set-72157626667600539/). He wrote a few other baseball novels, too. I also love Kinsella's Shoeless Joe. Must look up The Brothers K!

  10. @Red - I hope Boyfriend likes it! If he likes baseball, I'm pretty sure he will. And you should check it out too - many of the reviews I've read have started with some variation of "You don't have to like baseball to love this novel..."

    @Melody - I thought some of the background on Affenlight dragged a bit. And some of the descriptions of Henry's state of mind after he'd removed himself from the game were a tad repetitive. However, on the whole, it was a really good, really fun read!

    @Pam - This is the perfect novel for baseball AND literature fans - even if you're not one or other the other, you'll like it. But if you're both, you'll love it!

    @Steph - Thanks for the recommendations on other baseball books. I love the story about your baseball youth! ;) And definitely, definitely, definitely check out The Brothers K! (Joe Carter's home run was 1993. "Touch 'em all Joe, you'll never hit a bigger home run!")

  11. I really want to read this book.

    Poor Rick Ankiel....I'll never forget watching him just...fall apart during Game 2 of the playoffs back in 2000.