The Art of Fielding – Review

Chad Harbach. The Art of Fielding. Boston: Little Brown, 2011. Print.

The Art of Fielding is one of the best written books that I have read in a long time. The author says in a study guide afterword that it took him ten years to write it. I believe it. For the most part the prose sings. The author wins the reader on the first page with his words and pours his heart out even as the characters in the novel erect walls around theirs.

As many might guess from the title, The Art of Fielding is richly allusive. It hearkens back about a hundred years when a writer could assume that his or her reader knew history and the classics. The title takes off from baseball legend Tony Gwynn’s book The Art of Hitting. It is also the title of a book within the novel written by (fictional) Hall of Fame shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez, whose name echoes Luis Aparicio and Alex Rodriguez.

As a kid, Luis Aparicio was my favorite shortstop. As a Pirate fan, I loved Dick Groat, the 1960 Most Valuable Player, but “Little Looie” was the quickest and the best base stealer until Maury Wills. Also, I think, because he was “little,” kids identified with the little guy in a world of grownups.

The book within the book is the Bible for Westish College shortstop Henry Skrimshander. There are numerous allusions to Moby-Dick and Herman Melville, starting with Henry’s name. Henry is not a scrimshaw artist, as many whalers were, but a true fielding artist on the baseball diamond. He was recruited for his fielding skills, but now three years of year-round athletic training have turned him into a decent hitter as well.

For the first time in its history, the college baseball team is having a winning season and Skrimmer, as his teammates affectionately call him, is in the process of tying Rodriguez’s NCAA record for consecutive error-free innings by a shortstop. Major League scouts start coming to games. And then Henry develops a case of Steve Blass disease.

Steve Blass was a star pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates when they won the 1971 World Series. He was even better the next year. I recall that after the Series win, his hometown near where my parents were living had a Steve Blass Day to honor him. My family was Pirates fans so my mother joined the celebration. However, in 1973 Blass inexplicably lost his touch. He was wild and easy to hit. His Earned Run Average went from 2.49 to 9.85 (lower ERAs are better). He simply could not pitch at that level any more and retired after one game in 1974.

Henry keeps practicing, and his friends and teammates encourage him, but he cannot figure out what his problem is. The novel’s suggestion is that he becomes indecisive because he begins to think too much. Most sports require a kind of automatic “muscle memory” to accomplish many things. Instead of just sweeping up ground balls and relaying them on to first base in one motion, he begins analyzing what he is doing.

Ironically, doesn’t college education encourage us to question and analyze? I am reminded of the voice-over at the beginning of the film of Laurence Olivier’s version of Hamlet: “This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind.”

The main problem that most people in the book have is the inability to make decisions. They let things happen until they lose control. Next to Melville, the writer most alluded to is T. S. Eliot. Indeed, I would recommend any reader unfamiliar with the text, to take a look at Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” before reading this novel. The poem says:

And time yet for a hundred indecisions
and for a hundred visions and revisions. (ll. 32,33)

At one point one of the characters understands that Eliot was writing about the elite’s inability to decide things by 1922, athletes by 1973, and everyone else by 2000. (The 1973 could refer to Steve Blass’s bad year or the aftermath of Flood vs. Kuhn which was “settled” in 1972).

The story is contemporary. Twenty-three year old Pella was in eighth grade in 2002, and 2006 predates the time that any of the current students were in college.

Harbach does present his ensemble of characters sympathetically, even if they are passive. There is Mike Schwartz, captain of the baseball team and the big jock in the story who has been turned down by every law school he applied to. But if Berkeley was his safety school, how badly did he want to go to law school in the first place?

There is Henry’s gay roommate Owen. There is Pella, trying to start college at 23 after leaving the husband she eloped with when she was 18.

And there is Pella’s father, the Westish College president, President Guert Affenlight (half in light? echoing perhaps Hawthorne’s Dimmesdale?). As an undergrad at Westish, class of 1971, he discovered an unpublished speech of Herman Melville’s; of course, one of his professors takes credit for the discovery. After some time as a merchant seaman, he went to grad school at Harvard and in the eighties published what became a popular piece of literary criticism on homoeroticism in 19th Century American Literature. Trendy? Of course.

Affenlight’s book reminded me of the article “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in Huck Honey!” written in 1948 but trending consciously in the eighties. This book ultimately lands Affenlight tenure at Harvard which he leaves in 2002 to become president of his undergraduate alma mater.

Affenlight never marries but, to put it mildly, is hardly a celibate. He gets custody of Pella when her mother dies in a jeep accident in Uganda. In parody of “Prufrock,” Harvard undergrads speak of him:

The Cambridge ladies come and go
from Guert’s flat at 50 Bow. (55)

Bow Street is close to Harvard Square.

Though he was no hippie, Affenlight represents one of the first to live uncritically according to a sixties worldview. He lives mostly for himself, and though always featured as one of Boston magazine’s eligible bachelors while at Harvard, at heart he is a rolling stone, a drifter. I could only think of Tim Buckley’s critique of the sixties culture in the song “Goodbye and Hello”:

Godless and sexless directionless loons.

Affenlight becomes a pathetic character who, frankly, is looking for trouble and finds it. His favorite word from Moby-Dick is landlessness. He drifts. If his character is ennobled at all, it is because he is a scholar and he does appreciate beautiful writing. He likes the beauty and truth of “The Lee Shore” chapter in Moby-Dick which is recited for him at one point. Ishmael in that chapter is searching for a higher truth—something which no one in this novel seems to be aiming at.

The Art of Fielding has been called at school story like This Side of Paradise or A Separate Peace. I believe that it is more like Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. Fielding is not as funny as Lucky Jim—few books are—but the novel is not so much a coming of age story as it is a story of campus politics like Lucky Jim.

The sense of directionlessness is both a cause and effect of the campus politics. Except possibly for Henry, everyone’s personality and motivation is set before they arrive at Westish. But is not a radical determinism at the core of most academic philosophies these days? “That is just the way things are.”

At one point a character is described as Prufrockian. No one dares disturb the universe, except maybe the Westish Harpooners’ (obvious allusion) baseball team which is having a championship season for the first time in its history.

One of the sad features of the novel, which is apparently typical college culture among many, is the casual, almost meaningless, sexual relationships. President Affenlight, Pella, Owen, and Schwartz all manifest this and come across as merely sexless. I am not sure how any advocates of “free sex” in the sixties saw how empty this would become. Well, maybe Marcuse did because he wanted government to control everything, and sex would be like bread and circuses. It all suggests a pointless determinism.

While no one today would consider The Art of Fielding pornographic, there was one very jarring scene. I could only think of a long ago review of the 1969 Academy Award Best Picture Midnight Cowboy. The Harvard Crimson (yes, liberal academia) said “pardon me while I throw up” or words to that effect about a scene in that X-rated film about a male prostitute. Same with one chapter of this book.

Besides the free sex and campus determinism, another factor also keeps the characters in the story adrift and infantile—drugs. Everyone seems to have a narcotic of choice. Affenlight has his scotch collection. Schwartz is addicted to painkillers. Owen smokes marijuana and apparently does cocaine once in a while. Pella has her antidepressants. No wonder people cannot make up their minds!

Harbach is pleading—there must be more to life than just feeling good. I am reminded of a sixties classic by Bob Dylan:

“There must be some kind of way out of here,” said the joker to the thief,
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief…

The finale of The Art of Fielding should move the reader. Yes, the characters are godless, sexless, directionless drifters. But they do attempt in their own way to make things right and to show that that they do understand one another even if there is little possibility for change. Like their mentor the college president, they also may be children all their lives. Another song from the sixties comes to mind, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”:

There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever…

4 thoughts on “The Art of Fielding – Review”

  1. This past weekend I had the opportunity to hear Chad Harbach in a public interview. He did share a few things which perhaps shed a little light on The Art of Fielding.

    He said that Steve Blass disease fascinated him. “Everyone doubts themselves,” but athletes with problems have their crises in front of an audience. He also said that he intended the last scene in the graveyard and lake from the beginning. He said he used nineteenth century conventions, so he wanted to “go for the big ending.”

    He noted instead of the Tony Gwynn book, the book by Tom Seaver, The Art of Pitching. The idea is the same. And he said he is too young to remember Luis Aparicio, but that Aparicio Rodriguez is based on Ozzie Smith of the Cardinals.

    He also made some observations about the changing state of publishing and the study of literature in colleges. He recently edited a collection of essays titled MFA vs. NYC which note a conflict between the “literary” writing of Master of Fine Arts writing programs with the blockbuster-driven commercial publishing houses. He said that college literature courses are being replaced by creative writing courses which students perceive as being easier. Students, he said, want to read short stories, but real readers still want novels.

    Mario Puzo said that he went through about 21 or 22 drafts of The Godfather; similarly, Harbach estimates he wrote about 3 million words to end up with a book of about 150, 000.

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