The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
If you haven't heard of The Art of Fielding then seriously you must live under a rock. I doubt another book has gotten this much publicity in recent years. Its been mentioned just about everywhere you look to the point that even non-readers would have come across a review or reference about it in newspapers and magazines. It has generated a lot of hype and glowing reviews. So much in fact that even the author's Harvard roommate together with Vanity Fair wrote a book about how The Art of Fielding was published (How a Book is Born). This itself should make an interesting read considering that Harbach toiled so hard on the book for ten years before finally being offered a $650,000 advance. After being disappointed by that other college novel that was released last year, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, I decided to crack the spine of The Art of Fielding and find out for myself what the hype is all about.
The book opens with an amateur late summer baseball game wherein Henry Skrimshander, a smallish player, impresses Mike Schwarz, another player on the opposite team with his fielding ability. A friendship is formed and Henry wins a place at Westish college and becomes the shortstop for the college team. The years pass and Henry is right on track but just when he's offered a chance at playing for a major league team, Henry literally throws a curve ball. I don't want to give too much away but suffice it to say I didn't see that coming at all. Besides all this there are three other characters in the book with their own stories - Henry's gay roommate Owen; Guert Affenlight, the college president who after being straight all his life is suddenly attracted to Owen; and then there's Guert's daughter Pella, the girl who comes in between Henry and Mike.
So was it good? Yes, it was. It had extremely likeable characters and though I know next to zilch about baseball, I loved the sporting aspect of the book. I think Harbach fared well in delivering what it's like to be in a team - the pressure to perform, the deep friendships that are formed, the camaraderie, the competitiveness and also the jealousy. It's a very good book considering it's his first.
Is it the next great American novel? Yes and no. I can certainly think of many other American novels that I prefer however it's probably one of the best ones in recent years. It's certainly all- American and it's a book with themes that may not have been written about before. It's an ambitious novel and daring on several fronts and it's entertaining so I can understand why many people loved it.
So is it worth the hype? Yes. I wouldn't say it's wonderfully written. In fact some of the prose was wooden at times. Although I didn't love the book, I liked it a lot. It's charming and I guess Harbach succeeds mainly because of his appealing characters. I also believe in some of the themes and messages that Harbach was conveying. Ambition isn't everything. When it comes down to it, family and friendships are definitely the most important things in life. I'd happily give this book four stars out of five.