Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Art of Noveling

Book Reviewed: The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach 

It might be uncool to say now, but back in the day, I used to be a huge John Irving fan.  Irving's novels are self-contained worlds; all the people you could possibly need to spend time with were right there in front of you, with nice and neat story arcs tied up in 500 pages.  It's been a while since I read a thick, meaty contemporary novel like that.  I didn't realize how much I missed those kinds of books until I picked up Chad Harbach's beloved 2011 novel, The Art of Fielding.

Harbach's book got a lot of press when it dropped at the end of the summer, and I had a friend who read it and liked it a lot, so I knew it existed.  But it didn't really land on my radar until it began making every single best-of book list at the end of the year.  Every critic had the same thing to say about why they chose it: that it was a book full of great characters that a reader genuinely could care about.  Damn, I thought, I guess I'm gonna have to give this book a try.

Oh, this book is so good.  So very, very good.  At the fictional liberal arts institution of Westish College in Wisconsin, football/baseball player Mike Schwartz recruits Henry Skrimshander, a super-talented shortstop who never thought he'd go to college.  Schwartz helps shape Henry into a dutiful student and athlete, but he can't stop fate from intervening in the form of a throw gone wrong.  After said throw, Henry finds himself in a downward spiral that seems to pull everyone in: Schwartz, Henry's preternaturally calm roommate Owen, school president Guert Affenlight, and Guert's daughter, Pella.  As these characters make increasingly erratic and often self-destructive decisions, the book just pulls the reader in more and more.

I really enjoyed the experience of reading this book.  The characters are put together so well, and with such love, that you can't help but want the best for them.  Of course, this means everything bad that happens to them makes you want to throw the book across the room (which was really a problem, considering I was reading it on a Kindle).  When I was trying to decide if reading this book would be worth my time, my friend who had read it months earlier told me it was rewarding but required an incredible amount of empathy.  Man, was he right.  The final 100 pages or so began to feel like the sweetest, slowest torture possible.  I managed to finish this 500+ page book in four days because I couldn't stop at chapter breaks.  I obsessed over this book to the point that it began to make my stomach hurt some nights.  I adored Mike Schwartz so much that every time he showed up on the page, my palms sweated.

I don't think The Art of Fielding is a perfect book.  The last few chapters edge awfully close to over-sentimentality at times (although the book's final lines are well-earned and poignant), and the only female character - Pella - seemed awfully underwritten compared to her male counterparts.  But what the book does well - its strong writing, its amazing characters, its bittersweetness - is done so well that these issues barely register.  In some ways, this book encapsulates a certain kind of small, liberal-arts college experience so well that I could barely distinguish itfrom my own said experience.  How many times did I feel like Henry during my career at DePauw?  More times than I care to count.  This book is full of so many realistic, even painful, details that it makes up for some of the book's more fanciful plot points. 

I cannot recommend The Art of Fielding enough, especially for those of you who went to small Midwestern colleges or who are really passionate about something that might not come as naturally as you might have once imagined.  Yes, I just described myself.  That's how good this book is.  It's about my least favorite sport in the world, baseball, and I still managed to find myself in it.  I almost never feel this way about novels anymore.  God, I loved this book. 


  1. Would you recommend this book for Bookclub or will the length kill it? I thought we read a long one before.

  2. This would make a great bookclub pick in that it provides a lot of talking points. But you'd have to be careful about your audience. If you're part of a bookclub with a lot of older, more conservative readers, it might not be the one. Although who knows how willing people might be to go along with it.