Book Review: The Art of Fielding

The-Art-of-Fielding--A-Novel2How many debut novels get sold to a publisher for reportedly almost $700,000, stay on the bestseller list for weeks, receive lengthy blurbs from Jonathan Franzen and James Patterson, are the subject of a lengthy Vanity Fair piece describing how the book got written, have its film rights optioned to HBO, and on and on and on?

I’d love to signal independent-mindedness by saying Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But alas, I enjoyed the book immensely–it’s been awhile since I’ve read a novel so consuming and vivid.

The seemingly non-obvious but actually obvious observation about this book is that it’s more than a baseball novel. Baseball–the story of a star shortstop and his team–is ostensibly the main plot here. But there’s plenty of richness to be had in the friendships that develop along the way, college campus life, and the pressure of expectations. Throw in some good old fashioned gay sex between a college president and one of his students, and you’ve got yourself a novel.

The book is light rather than heavy in language–there’s no metaphorical excess here, and the chapters zip right along. This doesn’t make Harbach’s observations any less interesting. What follows are some examples of simple yet interesting sentences I underlined.

On the psychological protective role of the locker room for athletes:

The locker room protected you when you were most vulnerable: just before a game, and just after.

On the alphaness of a potential boyfriend who was willing to be temporarily aloof to his girlfriend’s evaluation:

Pella felt relieved to sit across from someone who was willing to act so unreservedly glum in her presence, as if she weren’t there.

On “high school and/or college were the best years of my life”:

Schwartz, for his part, had vowed long ago not to become one of those pathetic ex-jocks who considered high school and college the best days of their lives. Life was long, unless you died, and he didn’t intend to spend the next sixty years talking about the last twenty-two.

On feeling kind of off:

He felt a little off, a little odd, like he was playing himself on TV. He could hear his own voice bouncing around in his head.

On the uniqueness of baseball:

But baseball was different. Schwartz thought of it as Homeric–not a scrum but a series of isolated contests. Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball. You couldn’t storm around, snorting and slapping people, the way Schwartz did while playing football. You stood and waited and tried to still your mind. When your moment came, you had to be ready, because if you fucked up, everyone would know whose fault it was. What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?

On doctors, from the department of humor:

Doctors were the most self-righteous people on earth, Schwartz thought. Healthy and wealthy themselves, surrounded by the sick and dying — it made them feel invincible, and feeling invincible made them pricks. They thought they understood suffering because they saw it every day. They didn’t understand shit.

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