The Art of Fielding
by Chad Harbach
As I read THE ART OF FIELDING I kept asking myself 'Why am I reading this?' and when I put it down, the question at the forefront of my mind was 'What would make me read 528 pages set in an American private university about jocks called names like Loonie and Sooty playing baseball, which includes interminable descriptions of games of which I don't understand one word?'
The answer is complicated. Firstly, I had read and heard so much unstinting praise of the novel that I thought it must be worth persevering with, so I kept on reading long after I might have given up on another less-well-reviewed book. And, as I was reading on the kindle, which doesn't give you a page count, it took me a while to realise just how long it is, and by then I was hooked.
There is a certain amount of pleasure in reading about something completely different and removed from your own experience, especially when it uses a whole new language. I still have no idea what the words bunting, tag, slider, on-deck circle, fly ball or brushback pitch mean, and I'm pretty sure that cup and plate aren't things you eat off in this context. It was like reading poetry in a foreign language, where it seems that rhythm, cadence and onomatopoeia can sometimes stand in nicely for profundity. There is inevitably an underlying homoerotic element in all that male physicality which left me unmoved, but I did enjoy the sly literary allusions: the straight college president and Melville scholar who falls in love with a male student is best known for his influential study, The Sperm-squeezers.
As is often the way with (physically) weighty novels, there comes a point where you are so absorbed in the lives of the characters that you itch to spend time with them, even if they are people you wouldn't normally want to have a cup of tea with. And that is the measure of Harbach's genius: the extent to which his unlikely characters get under your skin. First, there's Henry, a simple young man who lives to play ball. A life of throwing and catching combined with natural talent and grace has produced a top class shortstop (whatever that is) who is destined for baseball stardom, until one day when one of his throws goes disastrously wrong. Then there's his meat-head mentor and coach; his gay scholarly room-mate; and the way their stories intertwine with the conflicted college president and his confused daughter. And that, along with a lot of baseball, is it.
Harbach clearly didn't write THE ART OF FIELDING for me and yet, yes, I would recommend it. It is extraordinary that a world that is so alien can be so engrossing, but that, I suppose, is the magic of literature.
Published by Fourth Estate, 528pp.