The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, is a coming of age sports novel that transcends the category. It has been praised by almost every major critic in every possible publication. I mostly join that chorus. I like the gentle humor in this book, the sly homage to Melville's Moby Dick, the empathy aroused by his characters, the sure plotting that unhurriedly moves the story to an ending that's unexpected. Harbach's inarticulate hero, Henry Skrimshander is a great surprise, a ball-player stand-in for the artist as mystic. Henry's an outsider. He's the kind of visionary who's uncompromising, self-sacrificing and, for a short-stop, ungrounded in planet earth.
Like a Sam Shepard hero, he comes from the obscure West, Lankton, South Dakota, with working class parents, and few aspirations but one. From the age of 9, when he got his glove with Aparico Rodrigues inscribed on it, he wanted to play shortstop like the famous player, whose book, "The Art of Fielding" becomes his lodestone. He calls the glove Zero, after his answer to his mother when she asked him how many errors he made in a game. Always his answer was Zero and it became a mantra for him, a result of his constant meditation on the perfect game. Henry's life, when he meets Schwartz, an unofficial scout for Westish College, was spent studying how "the ball came off the bat, the angles and the spin, so he knew in advance whether he should break right or left..." He already plays the game with an effortless impossible grace that fascinates Schwartz, yet, he becomes his acolyte.
Their meeting is like a ball fitting a glove. Schwartz, who's inspiration is Homer, is dedicated to the great endeavor of baseball. He has a talent for managing people but not the transcendent ability he recognizes in Henry Skrimshander. But Henry, a short skinny boy, needs to develop the heft and polish of the professional athlete.Their friendship is about winning for Westish, but more than that, developing Henry to his highest potential. Henry has the potential to not just make the big leagues but enter history. For Schwartz this is a mission worth any price. Besides endless practice, Henry builds muscle with killer regimens; skull crushing weight lifting, endurance runs, inedible protein drinks, as well as keeps up his academics and washes dishes for money. He has no social life but Schwartz's edicts are his gospel. Schwartz to him is Like Melville, Westish's guiding light, and Moby Dick, the unknowable force. When he plays for the Harpooners, he's part of something bigger than himself.
Henry shares his room with Owen Dunne, who introduces himself as "your gay mulatto roommate." Owen proves to be the opposite kind of ball player, an independent intellectual, who doesn't follow the coach's instructions. He's so unflappable, he reads while on the bench. But he's excellent in all he does, which somehow never perturbs his tranquillity. Owen's a seeker of the authentic and his inspiration is the President of Westish, Affenlight. The man who discovered Melville's connection to Westish, has lost his original mission.
In this novel, where alter egos learn from each other. Owen and Affenlight are Platonic in the sense of sensuality serving the life of the mind. This, not that it's a gay affair, is what's subversive about this book. It's clear that Owen is Affenlight's only gay affair--he loves the boy's beauty and brilliance. The relationship is pedagogical on both sides. Affenlight's authentic passion is a great counterpoint to the locker room casual obscenity and the usual cliche about homosexuality underlining sports teams. Which is not present in the life of the Harpooner team. It has importance that there's a fraternal bond about the game. This book's underlying theme is about that bond.
Perhaps that's why I found Affenlight's daughter, Pella to be an off note. There's her name, which everyone remarks is beautiful, and is never explained, though I somehow recall it from art history as having some meaning. She's the prodigal daughter, who unlike the boy-men in this novel, doesn't know what she's doing in her life, except recovering from a dead-end marriage. She's described as smart and rebellious but easily swayed by men and emotionally dependent. She ran off with a lecturer and is now without a high school degree, let alone a college education. Pella's at a dead end. She goes back to her father's world, so she can regain her life, and the life of the mind.
In The Art of Fielding, she falls for Schwartz, though when she meets him he's at his most sad sack state, just rejected from law school. He's not at his dynamic best, but his amber eyes are charismatic and though she's beautiful and brainy, she falls for him first out of sympathy. Pella can empathize with a man, who like herself, has not just hit bottom but lives there. In this book she's in this role with Schwartz, her father to some extent, and Henry. After he succeeds beyond his imaginings, he loses his faith and gives up all he has worked for. Paradoxically, the only way up for Pellas is to manage not to lose herself with a man. She learns, she can't remake or save anyone but herself, a theme of this book. That's fine but I found her the least convincing because she's a kind of prop or catalyst for the deeper emotional connections between the men.
Pella's enormously compassionate, but I didn't believe her continual self-sacrifice in this area. It bordered on masochism, not Mother Teresa. The deepest relationships in this novel are first between Henry and Schwartz and then Affenlight and Owen. When Henry and Schwartz are estranged, it's more about him leaving baseball, than about Henry's "mercy F" with Pella. Another issue I had with this book is the assumption that the older generation somehow has to die for the younger to come into their own. Pella can pursue her academic destiny as a tribute to her father.
Seemed a bit cliched in this book that turns so many around.
But the false notes are few. At the end Henry fulfills Rodriguez' words about the transcendent ball player as the rare one, who goes from " thoughless, to thought and then thoughtless." It's the kind of mystic language of knowledge as as a circle. Here it means Henry can again play ball. This is a very satisfying novel. As a reader with no knowledge of sports, I loved its investigation into the evolution of the human spirit. Baseball's both metaphor and reality.