Novel of the week: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
The Art of Fielding is a coming-of-age novel in which baseball becomes an allegory for life, starting with a young boy's errant throw.
(Little, Brown, $26)
Like baseball fans, readers of fiction “want to see the hot prospect jump off to a fast start,” said David Daley in USA Today. Chad Harbach, a co-founder of the literary journal n+1, scored a $650,000 advance for The Art of Fielding, which turns out to be a debut novel that earns its prepublication hype. “In his first time at bat,” the author “has made the near-impossible act of writing a very good American novel feel almost effortless.” Like its main character, Henry Skrimshander, the Zen-practicing shortstop who elevates the postseason hopes of tiny Westish College, Harbach’s book is a rarity: a “big, social novel with the quiet confidence not to overreach for grand statements on the times, and a debut that never feels like it’s straining to impress.”
Harbach’s “wonderful” baseball novel deserves a place alongside the genre’s classics, said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. Henry is a scrawny South Dakota kid with preternatural defensive skills, which he’s nurtured by studying a book of koans, The Art of Fielding, written by one of the game’s legends. When Henry makes an out-of-character errant throw, one that nearly kills a teammate, he develops a sudden case of what’s referred to in baseball as “the yips.” As every throw becomes an adventure for Henry, doubt creeps into his mind and, like a chain reaction, into the minds of other Westish denizens, including the team’s stalwart catcher and the school’s president. The table is set: Harbach manages from there both to renew baseball’s power as an allegory for life and to deliver a “magical, melancholy story” about overcoming “the booby traps of the human mind.”
“The most unusual feature of this unusually charming debut is the way it has of joining a love of baseball with a love of literature,” said Wyatt Mason in The New Yorker. Woven into the narrative are many “sly homages” to both baseball’s rich history and such literary giants as Melville. But because this is an author who knows that his “main order of business is to entertain,” his delivery is playful rather than ponderous. With Henry’s wild throw, Harbach succeeds in launching a quintessentially American coming-of-age novel, one about the quest for perfection and what happens when recognition of one’s fallibility leads to a moment of shaken confidence. The Art of Fielding is a story about our national pastime “that manages, as well, to be about our historical present.”