Monday, November 14, 2011

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Rating: 3 Stars

fielding: (in cricket/baseball) – to catch or pick up the ball in play
I’m very unfamiliar with the world of sports, and am generally bemused by anything to do with it. It brings many questions to my mind – about the fervor of fans who proclaim their loyalty by plonking cheese-like wedges on their heads and donning body-paint; about the intriguing nexus between sports and beer ads; about big, strong athletes who rough up women; about rich football players who opt to make even more money with dog-fights; about coaches who turn a blind eye when children are being egregiously harmed before them; and, most recently, about the college students who riot like berserkers on campus objecting to the firing of said coaches. It’s at those times that I realize no matter how whole-heartedly I embrace this country, in some ways, I’ll always be a stranger in a strange(r) land.
However, there are many others who enthusiastically follow sports around the year, and not just when the latest scandal explodes across the headlines. Chad Harbach’s novel, ‘The Art of Fielding’ is set in a fictional Wisconsin, liberal-arts college – Westish. The Westish baseball team, the Harpooners, receives a shot in the arm with the enrollment of Henry Skrimshander, a phenomenally gifted shortstop, who seems to field with unerring instinct. Skrimshander is discovered by Mike Schwartz, the Captain of the Harpooners. Schwartz abilities lie in honing raw talent, and Skrimshander obediently submits himself to his friend’s mentoring.
Henry’s prospects of turning pro seem like a sure thing, but in his junior year, he makes a jarring error on the field which erodes his confidence, and seemingly, unravels his very sense of self.
Harbach’s writing is fresh, and will appeal to readers inclined towards either literature or athletics. One of the book’s little idiosyncrasies is the frequent allusion to a fictional work, called ‘The Art of Fielding’ by a fictional baseball player, Aparicio Rodriguez, which is replete with Zen-like aphorisms that Henry commits to memory. Whether readers will be similarly inspired or merely irritated by the ersatz profundity is arguable.
Though the book is well-written and intelligently crafted, certain parts of it did come off sounding like an assignment from a creative writing class. The characterization is a little uneven – some like Mike Schwartz and Henry’s room-mate, Owen Dunne, are penned with an unhesitant hand. In other instances, the author fails to be wholly convincing. When one of the main characters finds himself, for the first time in his life, in the grips of a surprising passion, a sceptical critic might call it implausible, unlikely, or inexplicable. But I’ll try to absorb the relationship in the spirit of the romantic that I’m not, and confess that in its tenderness, eroticism, and yearning, it seems to be the genuine article.
However, it did leave me with one final question – is it possible to go through life being unaware of certain vital truths about oneself? Or to put it another way, how likely is it that a player would go through nine innings before he realizes that he’s been batting for the wrong team? That would be a sad waste of play time.

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