Reviewed by Lawrence W. Markert
LAWRENCE W. MARKERT is an English professor at Hollins University.
At the critical moment in “The Art of Fielding,” the debut novel from Chad Harbach, Henry Skrimshander, a flawless shortstop who is about to tie the collegiate record for consecutive errorless innings, throws to first for an easy out.
Inexplicably the ball veers off — was it a gust of wind or just his first bad throw? — and smashes into the face of his roommate, Owen Dunne, who, as always, sits in the dugout reading. Henry assumes the worst, that Owen is dead.
Anyone reading Harbach’s novel will find it hard to resist making the following statement: “This is a whale of a book,” big, important, compelling, funny, about much more than baseball, and summons Herman Melville as almost its ghost writer.
Harbach, a Harvard graduate now living in Virginia, has created a novel that easily stands with Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural” and W.P. Kinsella’s “Shoeless Joe” (the basis for the movie “Field of Dreams”), two great novels about much more than baseball, and with the “big” works of contemporary fiction, meaning longer and more complex than most current novels, by authors such as Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace.
Most of the action in the “The Art of Fielding” takes place at Westish College, a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Michigan. The story line centers on two figures, Mike Schwartz, a multisport athlete who is obsessed with ensuring that the baseball team win the national collegiate title, and his young recruit, Skrimshander, who appears to have the ability and ambition if properly trained to be the best shortstop in the history of the game.
Perfection motivates both characters. Skrimshander religiously follows the teachings contained in a book titled the “Art of Fielding,” thus the name of the novel, written by Aparicio Rodriguez, a composite of Luis Aparicio, the great White Sox shortstop, and Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees third basemen who started out as a shortstop.
The lessons encourage a Zen approach to baseball, its numbered paragraphs advising, “The Shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.”
The other main characters include Guert Affenlight, current president of Westish and Melville scholar, his daughter Pella, who returns from California and an unsuccessful marriage, and Skrimshander’s roommate, Owen, nicknamed Buddha. Harbach’s primary focus on these five characters, a single location, and a finite period of time adds to the intensity of the novel and remarkably adheres to the classical unities of time and place. The action spans Schwartz’s sophomore though senior years, but deals mostly with the final season.
The novel’s plotline never descends to the obvious. The narrative by design teases readers, taking them to the edge of the expected before, like Henry’s throw, veering off in a new direction.
Has Henry’s throw killed his roommate, perhaps alluding to another great baseball novel, Robert Coover’s “The Universal Baseball Association,” which deals with another Henry and a dead player? It’s more than worth the read to find out.
This event in any case changes the lives of all five characters in surprising ways, including precipitating or reinforcing Henry’s inability to throw the ball to first base.
“Steve Blass Disease,” named for the Pirates pitcher, and the “Steve Sax Syndrome,” named for the Dodgers second baseman, phenomena which Harbach suggests served as the germ for the novel, exemplify the sudden failure to throw the ball accurately.
But what of the white whale? Affenlight’s history provides the Melville connection, which Harbach handles with great fun and poignancy. During the 1970s, a watershed period according to Harbach, Affenlight was a student at Westish and discovered a manuscript, notes probably, that summarized a lecture Melville gave at the college in the 1880s. Melville completed three American lecture tours in his lifetime. As a result of the Melville association, the college changed its mascot from the Sugar Maples to the Harpooners and erected a statue in Melville’s honor on the campus.
Harbach constructs blatant as well as more subtle parallels to Melville, especially to “Moby Dick.” The baseball team, the Harpooners, becomes a version of Ahab’s crew, with Schwartz as the captain. The team’s main pitcher, named Starblind, echoes Melville’s Starbuck. The playful use of names and possible or impossible meanings brings to mind Thomas Pynchon’s novels. Guert Affenlight’s first name, for example, is the same as Melville’s cousin who had served onboard the ship USS Somers that became the basis for “Billy Budd.”
The less obvious and more important link to Melville relates to Ahab’s obsession and the interior struggles of Harbach’s five main characters.
The greatness of “The Art of Fielding” comes from the skill and accuracy of its rendering of the interiority of its characters. What motivates Schwartz and Henry? What causes doubt to enter their thoughts? The lives of the five central characters intermingle, each in their own way animated as Ahab was by an obsession. “Moby Dick” defines the archetype of human behavior at the core the novel and these characters.
As Henry says near the end of the narrative, “Deep down, he thought, we all believe we’re God.”