Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

This novel by Chad Harbach has caused a national stir among literary experts and has won praise of the sort a first-time offering rarely does.
by Charlie Leck

“The ability to throw a baseball was an alchemical thing, a superhero’s secret power. You could never quite tell who possessed it.”
                                [The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach]

“Well, it’s not really a baseball book,” my friend said, “though it might seem like it at first.”

As I closed it, I knew he was incorrect. This is a book about errors. It is a baseball book. There just happens to be a lot of other stuff going on also – and much of it happens to be about sex – and self-doubt – and fear of the truth – and breaking out – and dying with a broken heart. However, essentially, this is a book about baseball and how the game can jerk you around and make you half crazy with happiness in one quick moment and have you crumbling with fear and self-doubt in another.

I don’t know how many novels I’ve read in my life that seemed to be holding a mirror up for me, so that I might see myself more clearly. Only a few! This one did, but I don’t want to talk about that. I just want to forget it. Take it as a warning! I’ll get on with something else….

The Protagonist
Who is the leading character – the hero or heroine – the main person in Harbach’s book? Take your choice. The author builds a number of characters and the story is told from the mind and perspective of first this one and then that one and/or even another one. Skrimmer? Schwartz? Pella? Owen? Dr. Affenlight?

But, there’s always baseball hanging around in the background, acting as the glue that keeps the story together. Certainly, most of the story is away from the ball park, but the complexities of the game often get translated into the complications of even those characters who understand nothing about the game and how it’s played.

As Dr. Affenlight, the President of Westish College in Wisconsin, reflects near the conclusion of the book (sounding as if he could be thinking about a baseball game, though he wasn’t)…

“Most likely the string of errors was perfectly looped, without any ends at all. There were no whys in a person’s life, and very few hows. In the end, in search of useful wisdom, you could only come back to the most hackneyed concepts, like kindness, forbearance, infinite patience. Solomon and Lincoln: This too shall pass. Damn right it will. Or Chekhov: Nothing passes. Equally true.”
                                [The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach]

The ballplayer, in a moment of now or never, thinks of himself as the center of the universe…

“Each of us, deep down, believes that the whole world issues from his own precious body, like images projected from a tiny slide onto an earth sized screen. And then, deep down, each of us knows he’s wrong.”
                                [The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach]

And on the ball field friendships can be formed that last forever and are cautiously cared for; and trust can be cultivated and grown strong and true.

“...a soul isn’t something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love.”
                                [The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach]

Well, perhaps, to the uninitiated, this is not a baseball book. What then is it about? Friendship? Team mates? Love? Trust? Enduring? Overcoming? Forgiving? To those of us who have been lucky enough to meet, face to face, the Great Spirit of the Game and to be humbled by it, we know! We know! This is a baseball book.

And, what a wonderful book it is – whatever it is about. The immensely talented writer, John Irving said of it…

“It’s pure fun, easy to read, as if the other Fielding had a hand in it – as if Tom Jones were about baseball and college life.” [John Irving]

I read the book in two sittings. I literally found it difficult to put down. I penciled it up a lot and put many exclamation marks in the margins to indicate wonderful sentences. When I finally closed the book, I sat way back in this very chair and realized that the character of Henry Skrimshander had become just as much a part of my life and memories as had Holden Caulfield so many years ago. I guess that’s as highly as I can praise a novel.


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1 comment:

  1. This just might be the push that I need to finally pick this one up. :)

    Great review.