four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
55-Nov-Dec-2011
By: 
Chad Harbach
user_rating: 
0

A-The Art of FieldingChad Harbach studied English at Harvard and currently works as an editor for the literary journal n+1. The Art of Fielding is his first novel.

The Story: Henry Skrimshander is the closest thing the tiny baseball team of Wisconsin's Westish College has to a superstar: the lanky shortstop is well on his way to the big leagues--that is, until an errant throw seriously injures a teammate who has a penchant for reading in the dugout. Skrimshander soon finds himself paralyzed by fear, both on and off the diamond, unable to take risks or even to throw a ball with any velocity. Skrimshander's baseball prospects quickly fade, and he is left to deal with the fallout. The novel follows not only Skrimshander's struggles but those of many of his college friends and teammates, including his gay roommate, Owen (the unfortunate recipient of the erratically thrown ball), his catcher, and even the president of the college, as the lives they envision change drastically.
Little, Brown. 512 pages. $25.99. ISBN: 9780316126694

New York Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Measured against other big, ambitious debuts by striving young writers, The Art of Fielding is surprisingly old-fashioned and almost freakishly well behaved. ... Failure and success and outsize ambition ... these are fitting themes for a crowd-pleasing baseball story, yes, but they are also the natural concerns of a serious artist coming to terms with his powerful talent and intentions." Gregory Cowles

NPR 4 of 5 Stars
"Harbach is such an empathetic writer--such a good coach--that Schwartz and his teammates suffer in ways suited to them, and feel as smart and human and real as a reader could hope for. ... But Harbach's novel might remind you not of the highbrow writers one associates with n+1 but of John Irving's The World According to Garp in its length, its warmth, its love of sudsy plot twists." Dan Kois

Onion AV Club 4 of 5 Stars
"The best plays in The Art Of Fielding come in the gaps between dialogues, as the characters earnestly but unwisely attempt to sort out their conflicting feelings, and Harbach displays a world of patience in allowing them to solve their own problems as if in real time. ... Henry's attachment to baseball and his new home delivers a satisfying wallop of meaning that ultimately links his friends' fates with his." Ellen Wernecke

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"At his best, Harbach energetically propels varied characters through a rambling story that is entertaining in part because the author himself often doesn't seem to be taking it seriously. Some readers will be comfortable with his choice of college baseball as a setting for personal and universal struggles, some won't." Bill Littlefield

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Unlike the other main characters, Owen seems undeveloped--more of a winsome concept than a real person. At one point, Pella dismisses Henry as ‘a silly kid with a silly problem,' and indeed the novel itself occasionally veers toward Young Adult status--much ado about college games. ... But for the most part, Harbach's hand is sure." Dennis Drabelle

Critical Summary

Writing a novel that mixes Moby-Dick with baseball may seem like an insurmountable task, but many critics took delight in finding the many allusions--both literal and figurative--to Melville's greatest novel in The Art of Fielding. Reviewers were equally enamored with Harbach's desire to create a long, sprawling work in defiance of many of today's tightly plotted, short-on-the-details best sellers. Although the book is lengthy, its heft and Harbach's unhurried pace add to the overall effectiveness of the work, allowing for the development of three-dimensional characters and situations. Many critics favorably compared this style to that of Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace. Not least, for baseball fans, Harbach "makes the case for baseball, thrillingly, in [this] slow, precious and altogether excellent first novel" (New York Times Book Review).