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Review: ‘The Art of Fielding’ by Chad Harbach

'The Art Fielding'

"The Art of Fielding"

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THE ART OF FIELDING

By Chad Harbach

Little, Brown, 512 pages, $25.99

Updated: September 18, 2011 2:35AM



They would drop, unexpectedly, as if from the gods. They were the bookseller’s dream when I was working at the old Kroch’s and Brentano’s (Store 6, Oakbrook Center). We lived for those rare, new books you could recommend to absolutely everybody, including the legions who didn’t know what they were looking for. Ragtime was one of those books. It was fresh, literary, fast. You could put it in the hands of those looking for a good story ... or those looking for something to give to Uncle Jack or to their son in the hospital or to their friend who had read everything.

I sold a lot of Ragtimes.

The Art of Fielding is one of those books.

It’s hard to figure who wouldn’t take to this captivating, breezy debut by Chad Harbach, an editor of the cultural magazine n+1. It has it all: love, the search for identity, redemption, a superbly drawn setting, engaging characters ... and baseball.

Mike Schwartz strides mightily across these pages in a familiar Midwestern landscape. He’s the captain of the Westish College baseball team. Westish, a (fictional) small, liberal arts bastion about midway up the east side of Wisconsin on the lake, hasn’t won a hardball title in over 100 years. The Harpooners (so named in honor of Herman Melville’s memorable visit to the place) could use a few good men. When Schwartz chances upon a scruffy, young shortstop — Henry Skrimshander — playing Legion ball, he thinks he’s found one.

Skrimshander is a whiz in the field, a graceful intuitive player who knows where the ball will go from the moment it kisses the bat. He’s never out of place, makes no errors with the glove, throws perfect bullets to first. His Zen-like control emanates from constant practice and steady reading of a book called The Art of Fielding by a legendary pro shortstop, tantalizingly named Aparicio Rodriguez. A typical slice of ageless baseball wisdom: “The shortstop is the center of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.”

Schwartz recruits Henry to come to Westish and join the Harpooners. Once there, he encounters a new sort of family. His “gay, mulatto” roommate, Owen, is another baseball player, who is effortlessly hilarious and likes to read things like Kierkegaard and The Voyage of the Beagle in the dugout.

The university’s president, Guert Affenlight, is a 60-ish Melville scholar and ladies’ man who has developed a nascent infatuation with Owen. Rounding out the roster is Affenlight’s grown daughter, Pella. She’s left a troubled marriage in San Francisco and fled to Westish.

These characters, all of whom walk the line between normal and quirky, get drawn out after being drawn into Henry’s amazing orbit. Within a couple of years, he’s a star, leading the team into the playoffs and getting ready to break Rodriguez’s college record for consecutive errorless games.

And then with one throw, everything — for everyone — changes.

Harbach knows his baseball. His descriptions of many games are flawless and flecked with poetry, but The Art of Fielding is far from inside baseball. Actually, it’s really not about baseball anymore than Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was about motorcycles.

In a book loaded with literary references and haunted by Melville (which is a pretty good trick in such a spritely tale), there are several Ahabs at sail and just as many Moby Dicks over which to obsess. Skrimshander, which is a Norse form of “scrimshaw,” is on a big quest. But then, so is everyone else — chasing different horizons while working through personal moments of truth.

Charming though they may be, this cast is struggling with transformations that will lead them to their true identities. The metaphorical key they each must realize can be found in Rodriguez’s Art of Fielding: Prepare, allow the ball to come to you and thoughtlessly make the play. That may be challenging for all involved, but wow, is it great fun to watch and read.

And for the bookseller, The Art of Fielding has another thing going for it. At 512 pages, it squares nicely with columnist Russell Baker’s famous koan that “Americans like fat books and thin women.”

Let it come to you.

John Barron is the publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times.



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