Monday, December 19, 2011

Review: The Art of Fielding

The Art of Fielding

From The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach:

Open quote 

To want to be perfect. To want everything to be perfect. But now it felt like that was all he'd ever craved since he'd been born. Maybe it wasn't even baseball that he loved but only this idea of perfection, a perfectly simple life in which every move had meaning, and baseball was just the medium through which he could make that happen."

The Art of Fielding is a book about baseball. But that's like saying Moby Dick is a book about fishing. The two books have a lot in common.

After the jump, my review.

Grade: B-

The main character is a talented college shortstop who lives to play baseball. He's surrounded by a gay roommate, a gruff catcher who mentors him, a university president in a mid-life crisis and the president's daughter who is trying to figure what she wants out of life. The lives of these characters intertwine in ways that reveal much of what the book is really about: the great white whale of the book, the pursuit of perfection.

The book was on all the critics' best-of-2011 lists. My opinion? It was OK, maybe even good, but not great. The characters are stereotypes each with his or her own stereotypical personal issue (except the one nicknamed Buddha, naturally). The plot contains some highly implausible events. And some all too predictable events -- the perennial losers put together a winning season. It's just really, really hard to write a good novel about sports. But don't let the baseball theme dissuade you from reading this. Baseball is only the framework on which Harbach builds his story of the universal quest for fulfillment and happiness.

How can you not be intrigued by a novel where the baseball team are the Harpooners and the players seem to be as comfortable with Moby Dick as they are with a curve ball? And how can I personally not be attracted to a novel set in the fictional Westish College on the shore of Lake Michigan in northeastern Wisconsin? ("In the evenings they played on a summer team in Appleton." Disappointingly, that's the only mention of my hometown.) In the novel, Herman Melville himself once visited Westish College and gave such an eloquent speech praising the land and the Great Lakes that the college erected a statue of Melville in the main quad. The Art of Fielding may be Harbach's debut novel, but you've got to give him credit for daring to risk comparison with Melville.

Other novels you might want to read either before or after The Art of Fielding:

  • Moby Dick, obviously. Still the great American novel.
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an unrelated novel, but one I'm reminded of by the fictional self-help baseball book with the same title as Harbach's novel, The Art of Fielding
  • Skippy Dies, an unrelated novel, but also a coming-of-age novel set in a boarding school, with more original characters and storytelling, and a similar plot twist

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