The Catcher In The Awry!

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

………I first heard of Chad Harbach’s book when he was interviewed on Simon Mayo on Radio 5 (though I can’t recall if I heard it or my partner heard it and told me!). Either way I remembered two things – they raved about it and kept saying ‘don’t be put off by the baseball bit!’ But I was! And I’m a Brit who went to see baseball while visiting Boston, loved it, adopted the Red Sox as my team and to this day I can recall so vividly that unique sound of Nomar Garciaparra hitting a home run!! But still even I was put off – a whole book about baseball????? I think I expected some kind of technical exposition to rival the descriptions I hear from cricket pundits about spin bowling! Fine to listen to while watching a test match but read that in a book? No thanks!

However having packed to move house, I left the Art Of Fielding out among a few books which I reckoned would last me over the hiatus between packing up in one house and unpacking in another. It was a bit of a false ploy as I didn’t expect to have to read it before unpacking! It salved my conscience a bit. But then I went through the other books quicker than I thought and so was ‘forced’ into the company of Chad Harbach on my journeys to and from work. And the book made those journeys a joy! I loved this book. Loved it, loved it, loved it, loved it, loved it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The story follows the journey of Henry Skrimshander, a baseball short-stop fielding bona-fide genius who is on a run of perfect fields. When he is on the verge of breaking the record for consecutive ‘perfect’ games, his first mis-timed throw starts a chain of events with serious consequences for Henry and his future prospects for making it as a major league baseball player. As things go awry for Henry they also start to unravel for those around him and connected to him. Mike Schwartz is Henry’s mentor, guide and team-mate in the Westish College side. But that’s only a small part of his role in Henry’s life – while Henry provides the talent, poise, and instinct that make him the supremely gifted athlete, Scheartz is the driving force behind him -he’s Henry’s heartbeat – but as events unravel Schwartz is forced to consider whether in becoming Henry’s heartbeat he’s forgotten to be his own heartbeat as well. Alongside Schwartz and Henry, are Henry’s college roommate Owen, whose combination of handsome good looks, intelligence and slightly detached personality make him a little like that old Churchillian comment about Russia ‘a riddle, shrouded in mystery, wrapped in an enigma’. The Head of the College, President Affenlight, is falling dangerously but precipitously in love just as his errant daughter Pella arrives at Westish, retreating from a disastrous relationship and looking for the small town college security that she’d previously sought to escape. As Henry’s life and career start to go awry in the wake of that one erroneous throw, there’s a domino like effect for the novels other main characters, forcing all of them to confront and then try and resolve their own lives all seemingly in danger of going awry at the same time.

The combination of their individual stories and the connections between them make this an engrossing, virtually unputdownable novel from pretty much the first page. The characters are brilliantly sketched and developed, they feel natural, and I found myself connecting with every single one of them. And perversely, though I’d echo those sentiments of Simon Mayo and others that this IS NOT a book about baseball, it was perhaps Chad Hardbach’s writing about baseball that I enjoyed most of all. For me, that came from the sheer unexpectedness of how subtly it meshes into the story and the way his descriptions of baseball techniques and tactics are sometimes a metaphor, and sometimes a commentary, on what’s happening to the characters in the novel specifically and to the everyday lives of Americans in general.

After I first heard of this book, I read it described somewhere as an example of ‘the great American novel’. I’m never sure what that actually means but I assume it’s a novel which is epic in scale and ambition and which captures the essence of America at the time it’s written. So, is ‘The Art Of Fielding’ an example of the great American novel?

Well, it’s certainly epic in ambition, and its themes of modifying ambition to reality, coming to terms with change, dealing with insecurity and retaining confidence in the face of setbacks seem spot on to me at a time of recession, economic uncertainty and the somewhat faltering first term for Obama. But I’m a Glaswegian lover of America from a distance, so it would be for others cleverer and better placed than I if this is ‘a great American novel!’ But I know a fantastic book when I read one! So for me this is, without a shadow of doubt, ‘a great American novel!!!’