Thanks to the women’s book group I’m in, I’ve read a few books that I wouldn’t have picked up on my own, mainly because they aren’t historical fiction. So I just finished The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. This is definitely a book club book. It’s a contemporary relationship book set in a small Midwestern liberal arts college that is ostensibly about baseball, but really isn’t. It’s more universally about youth and aging, goals and frustration, talent and the lack of it, hard work and luck, both good and bad. Using baseball as a metaphor for all this worked particularly well in this book because the author did such a good job playing on familiar baseball stories but giving them a twist.
His skill is noticed by a college sophomore who is passing through Henry’s town for a tournament. Mike Schwartz, who plays football and baseball for Westish College, has become an unofficial recruiter for the college. He arranges for Henry to enroll at the school the following year and then becomes his mentor and personal trainer.
On campus, Henry meets his roommate, Owen Dunne. Owen is something a shock to Henry because he is a black, gay, pot-smoking philosopher. Owen is also a baseball player, but a lackadaisical one. Owen sits on the bench reading.
Additional important characters are the president of the college, Guert Affenlight, and his daughter (fleeing a bad marriage), Pella.
To set the stage--Westish is used to having a losing ball team, until Henry arrives. Everyone can tell he is different. He has potential. When he is on the field, the team pulls together and plays real baseball. They begin to win. Henry chases his hero’s record for most consecutive games without an error. Scouts for the majors are beginning to call. It’s a classic sports triumph story. And then. . . Henry makes a whomping error.
One error is nothing to worry about. But Henry does worry. His game falls apart. Not only does Henry unravel, but the lives of the people around him come into sharper focus also, and the reader sees just how messed up they are. The characters are so enmeshed in each others’ lives that the actions of one influence the others and there is a downward spiral for them all. It’s particularly heartbreaking because they are, for the most part, well-intentioned, caring people. Henry is rather self-centered, but he isn’t mean-spirited. And while the reader might like for some sort of storybook happy ending, there is something very real about these people that gives the sense that they may muddle through, but they will be coping with, not triumphing over, their difficulties.
I was a bit hesitant approaching this book because of the hype around it and because the subject didn’t grab me, but I’m very pleased that my book club chose it and that I took the plunge and read it. We had a great discussion, with varying opinions on the characters and some of the plot elements. But everyone enjoyed the book and agreed that despite the length, it was a quick read. So, if you like literary books about baseball and college life, give it a try. And if you don’t think that’s quite your thing, you might still like it anyway.