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The Art of Fielding

June 3, 2021

I picked up Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding because it was recommended to me by a former student from the small liberal arts college where I work. It’s about a group of students at a fictional small liberal arts college somewhere on the shore of Lake Michigan, and it’s about friendship and ambition and monomania and baseball. My former student said it made him laugh out loud in places, I assume in delighted recognition, but from my perspective, as someone nearer the end of the liberal arts road, it was sadder.

The fictional college is called Westish, and its president, Guert Affenlight, fell in love with Melville as an undergraduate, to the extent that he went to sea for four years after graduation and tried to write a novel before ending up in graduate school at Harvard, where he became “a star” because “most of his fellow students were younger, and none had achieved so desperate a grasp on the literature of his chosen period. Affenlight could drink more coffee, not to mention whiskey, than the rest of them put together. Monomaniacal, they called him, an Ahab joke; and when he spoke in seminar—which he did incessantly, having suddenly much to say—they nodded their heads in agreement.” By the time the main events of the novel take place Affenlight is 60 years old, an age that seems old to a college student.

The friendships circle around Mike Schwartz, a football and baseball player for Westish, and Henry Skrimshander, the baseball player Mike mentors. Henry’s first-year roommate Owen and Affenlight’s daughter Pella are drawn in, as is Affenlight himself.

At first it seems like it’s going to be a novel about baseball. Henry is a talented shortstop, a habitual re-reader of Aparicio Rodriguez’ The Art of Fielding, and Mike Schwartz’s most talented protégé. Why a college student has a protégé is a good question, and although the answer takes the whole novel, we’re given glimpses, like when Mike doesn’t achieve a goal he has set for himself and we’re told that “everyone expected him to succeed, no matter what the arena, and so failure, even temporary failure, had ceased to be an option. No one would understand, not even Henry. Especially Henry. The myth that lay at the base of their friendship—the myth of his own infallibility—would be shattered.”

Mike starts Henry on a training regimen for strength and speed, and Henry takes to it so much that after training “he went to yoga class….Then he trained some more…..He got up at five and did it again.”

Later we’re told that Mike
“didn’t want to go into coaching, though everyone at Westish, especially the coaches, expected him to. He already knew he could coach. All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph.”

We don’t know a lot about Mike and Henry’s academic performance except that Mike is writing a thesis for classics and thinks of baseball as “Homeric—not a scrum but a series of isolated contests. Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball. You couldn’t storm around, snorting and slapping people, the way Schwartz did while playing football. You stood and waited and tried to still your mind. When your moment came, you had to be ready, because if you fucked up, everyone would know whose fault it was. What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?”

We’re also told that Mike “had no art to call his own. He knew how to motivate people, manipulate people, move them around; this was his only skill. He was like a minor Greek god you’ve barely heard of, who sees through the glamour of the armor and down into the petty complexity of each soldier’s soul. And in the end is powerless to bring about anything resembling his vision.”

Aparicio makes an appearance at a Westish game and joins in the speculation about what is bothering Henry so he can’t throw as well as formerly, making Affenlight muse about whether 1973 might have been the year “that Prufrockian paralysis went mainstream—the year it entered baseball? It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation—the Modernists of the First World War—would take a while to reveal itself throughout the population. And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the realm of utmost confidence in same: the realm of professional sport. In fact, that might make for a workable definition of the postmodernist era: an era when even the athletes were anguished Modernists.”

Henry doesn’t seem like he tries very hard at anything except physical training, much like his roommate Owen who reads a lot of books, keeps their room spotlessly clean, and plays baseball, all without ever seeming to move a muscle. (For this reason, the other boys on the team call him “Buddha.”) We see Henry in class only once, in an English class where we are told that “he didn’t like to talk during Professor Eglantine’s class, not because he’d get in any trouble but because Professor Eglantine seemed as sensitive as a skinned knee, she frequently cried during class at the beauty of various poems, and Henry worried about disappointing her.”

Owen’s role in the novel is mostly to provide contrast to the monomania of the other characters, and Pella’s is to provide an outsider’s point of view on their friend group and also on her father’s late-in-life love affair. Because it’s so much about the college, the small-campus feel of this novel reminded me a little bit of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin.

Anyone who has been a part of a liberal arts college will find something moving in The Art of Fielding, even just the details. One part about a house belonging to a faculty couple made me weak with recognition, as their “two children were both graduated from college and gone, their bedrooms converted into spruced-up, stripped-down pieds-a-terre for holiday and summertime visits.” It’s a good summertime book, even if it is a little sad for those of us nearer the end of a lifetime spent on liberal arts college campuses.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 3, 2021 6:47 am

    I think I’m going to add this to my Big Books of Summer list. I’m pretty sure my sister recommended this one to me, too, back when it was new.

    • June 3, 2021 7:45 pm

      It might be that kind of book; I vaguely remember someone else recommending it to me when it first came out, but I didn’t have time then. The recommenders are right, though!

  2. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    June 3, 2021 5:27 pm

    You remind me that I’ve had the ebook of this for literally years and somehow never actually read it. I don’t know if I’m up for something that sounds so melancholy, but the small campus setting does seem inviting.

    • June 3, 2021 7:45 pm

      I don’t want to overstate the melancholy. It’s largely a personal reaction to getting interested in where the older character was going to go next, especially because he is exactly my age, and then finding out that was it for him.

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