(Firstly, sorry about the lack of blogging last week but I had some major computer issues. Thankfully all seems well now, so normal service resumes!)
The Art of Fielding is the debut novel from American writer Chad Harbach, published in the UK last year. The book’s main theme is baseball, a subject I know precisely nothing about except that Irish people always say it’s just like rounders. I generally tend to steer clear of books which take sport as their main focus as I’m not knowledgeable or interested in most sports, however a friend lent me Harbach’s book and with nothing else in The Pile, I started it last week and ended up finishing it within four days. Thus you can guess that an interest in baseball is not essential to enjoying the novel.
The Art of Fielding has five central characters: Henry Skrimshander, a baseball prodigy whose considerable talent attracts the attention of Westish college; Mike Schwartz, Henry’s mentor and champion on the Westish team; Guert Affenlight, the president of Westish; Pella Affenlight, Guert’s daughter who arrives at Westish after a disastrous first marriage, lost and confused; and Owen Dunne, Henry’s roommate who gets caught up in a dangerous affair. The action takes place within Henry’s first two years at the college where his superb scores attract the attention of the major league scouts and the pressure is on for Henry to prove himself and get his team, the Westish Harpooners, through to the championship.
The book is lengthy and contains many play-by-play descriptions of games. I’m sure if you know anything about baseball it’s nail-biting stuff. However it’s not just a baseball story; it’s a coming of age novel, a tragi-comedy and a campus novel rolled into one. I often think that a truly great novel excels in both style and story. There’s no point in having 300 pages of delicious prose if nothing whatsoever happens, and equally there’s no point in having a gripping plot if the prose is worse than a Leaving Cert. essay. This is what makes Harbach’s novel so brilliant. His prose is beautiful, the characters are warmly drawn and empathetic, and the plot is sufficiently gripping to keep me turning the pages into the wee small hours.
In many ways the novel is old-fashioned. Harbach is not intent on exploding the genre or making the reader puzzle over stylistic experiments. Often writers can be hampered by the desire to write something jaw-dropping, something that will unite the critics in wonder, and as a result they write books that are strained at best, or pretentious and unreadable at worst. There is an awful lot to be said for telling a story and telling it well and Harbach has done exactly this. Bravo!