Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is not actually a baseball novel; it’s a college novel, a great college novel.
You have no doubt heard, by now, about The Art of Fielding—for many it’s become the new title that they need to hurry up and read, lest they feel embarrassed when all of their bookish friends discuss it at a party. The book has been covered everywhere, raved about almost unanimously, and even had its birth process stripped bare in a fascinating, if at times obnoxious, Vanity Fair story. In other words, Chad Harbach’s novel is this fall’s Freedom.
Make no mistake: every wide-eyed, praise-heaping review is completely deserved. But if there’s one untruth that has come from much of the positive press, it’s that this is a baseball novel. Ostensibly, yes, The Art of Fielding is about a young man with God-given talent at shortstop and about his charming little college’s scrappy baseball team. But what it’s really about is that charming little college itself, which, though not a living, breathing character, has a pulse and is perhaps the most central presence of the novel.
Harbach’s is a college novel in the tradition of other great college or boarding school novels, like The Secret History, Old School, or Skippy Dies. These books that sketch out an enclosed world so vividly that by the halfway point, the reader feels like a student at the institution. The Art of Fielding brings us to small, idyllic Westish College six pages in and never again departs from campus. The plot synopsis is already out there, known even to those that haven’t yet read the book: The protagonist is shy, lithe Henry Skrimshander, who is recruited to Westish by a football player one year his elder named Mike Schwartz, who ends up dating Pella Affenlight, whose father is the president of the college, Guert Affenlight, who, never having been gay in the past, falls in love with Henry’s gay, black roommate and teammate Owen Dunne. These few degrees of separation that connect the main five are established early, and Harbach quickly moves on to develop the moving minutiae of each person’s life at the college.
The problems of these five characters are typical; they come a dime a dozen at most colleges. Henry falls into a fielding slump; Schwartz isn’t having much luck getting into law schools; Pella doesn’t quite know where her academic or professional interests lie. Even Guert’s relationship with Owen, though a bit more shocking than most because he’s the college president, is nevertheless just another sexual liaison between a student and a faculty member; such scandals are not uncommon. It’s in the nuanced telling of these problems, and how they bump up against one another as they play out, that the book shines.
The characters approach their college problems in adult ways, or, even when they don’t, they think about them maturely. When Henry and Pella join in a downward spiral after the former quits the baseball team and the latter dumps Schwartz, their sadness and guilt does nothing to stop them from continuing to have emotionless sex. After, Pella thinks, “People thought becoming an adult meant that all your acts had consequences; in fact it was just the opposite.”
The dialogue is just as honest and real as the internal logic—so real as to be absurd at times, which of course is true to life. When Schwartz confronts Henry in the baseball locker room and accuses him of “nailing” Schwartz’s girlfriend, Henry erupts and yells, “I nail all your girlfriends!” It’s both funny and upsetting for everyone involved. A similar moment—jarring and emotionally raw—comes when President Affenlight visits Henry in his dorm room to check on him during end-of-year finals. They have what seems a normal, if stilted, conversation, until abruptly: “Henry’s face collapsed and he started to sob.” We’re taken aback, as is Affenlight. Moments like these run through the entire book, keep the pages turning, and creep up on us. Harbach makes us truly love and care for these people.
And yet the most developed character isn’t Henry, but Schwartzy. After all, the book opens from his point of view: “Schwartz didn’t notice the kid during the game.” It’s a move akin to Hemingway opening The Sun Also Rises with Robert Cohn, as opposed to the presumed hero of the story, Jake Barnes. Within the world Harbach creates for us at Westish, it is Schwartzy who, more than any other, holds the web of characters together. He expresses this late in the book, frustrated after a night of trying to save various people on the team and in his life from their inevitable vices: “Why do I have to babysit the whole goddam school?”
The story is told from the perspective of each character (save for Owen, it’s worth noting), switching again and again, but Schwartz develops early on as our overall guide, just as he is Henry’s. We come to understand him as well as we did Joey in Freedom, John Wheelwright in A Prayer for Owen Meany, or Gene in A Separate Peace—all stories in which the main character is ostensibly someone else. Like some of these other writers, especially Irving and Franzen, Harbach makes us feel as though we’ve been with the characters a lifetime, though The Art of Fielding only goes from Henry’s freshman to junior year at Westish. The book’s final scene, which is a wacky, slightly shocking illegal action, nonetheless feels just right and leaves us longing for another 500 pages, as only the best novels do.
A colleague pointed out to me, when he saw Harbach’s novel on my desk, “It’s kind of weird timing for a baseball novel to come out. You’d think they would release it in the spring or something, not in September when the season is ending.” That just about sums it up, though; they didn’t try to time this book to the baseball season. They timed it to September, when the fall semester is beginning, and students are heading back to their own Westish campuses. If they pick up this book, they’re going to see myriad parallels with their own experiences. But so will adults, and that’s what makes it such an accomplishment and all-around pleasure.