I’m not a huge baseball fan. I mean, I like to have a beer and eat a hot dog as much as the next person (potentially a little more, even) but in terms of watching the game… eh. I realize this is a little un-American to say, but our nation’s pastime can get kind of boring. At least, that’s what I thought until I read Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art of Fielding.
Henry Skrimshander was heading nowhere. Literally, he wasn’t going anywhere – born and raised in a mid-sized town in South Dakota, it was looking like he’d be there for a while, until the day that his summer baseball team played against (and lost to) Mike Schwartz’s team. This was the summer after high school had ended for Henry, and he was thinking of settling in at the local community college for a few years, until… what? All he’d ever wanted to do with life was play baseball.
Mike Schwartz, rising sophomore and catcher for the Westish College Harpooners, knew raw talent when he saw it, and see it he did. Suddenly, Henry was on his way to play college ball for Westish, leaving behind a life of working in his father’s metalworking shop or taking classes in bookkeeping to cobble together a career.
Once at Westish, the Harpooners become Henry’s life. Between his jock-friendly classes, team practices, his bench warmer roommate Owen, and Mike’s training regimen, Henry is immersed in baseball, and he thrives in it. By junior year, the recruiters are already hanging on the fences at Harpooners games, waiting to see if Henry can break his hero Aparicio Rodriguez’s record of most consecutive errorless games by a shortstop. As the pressure begins to mount, Henry begins to fail.
It starts with a bad throw made worse by a little bit of wind, and goes downhill from there. Harbach follows Henry’s descent into depression as his confidence is broken and his playing deteriorates rapidly. As the life that Henry has been working towards starts slipping through his fingers, he pulls away from Mike and all that he has held important.
The story is told through a variety of characters, each filling in different holes of the story as it goes forward. Henry, Mike, Owen, Westish College’s President Guert Affenlight, and his estranged daughter Pella, all make up the narrative voice of the story. This was a delightful debut novel. If Harbach can make me care about baseball, I’d like to see more of what he can do.”