‘The Art of Fielding,’ Chad Harbach
At this year’s Hay Literature Festival, I was excited to sit in on a talk by an author I’d heard a lot of buzz about: Chad Harbach. Looking around at the middle-aged, tweed-clad crowd, I was pretty sure I knew which book buying/signing queue would be longer after the event: apparently not being famous enough in the UK to warrant a slot of his own, Harbach was sharing his allotted hour with a waif-like Welsh author called Grace McCleen. Her book was described by the Festival Program as “…a heartbreaking story of imagination and hard reality, of good and evil, belief and doubt”; Harbach’s debut is, on the most basic level at least, a 500-page book about baseball.
Boy was I mistaken.
People must have heard the same rumours I had: that this was the latest Great American Novel, that Harbach was a new Jonathan Franzen, (whose quote of praise, fittingly enough, graces the front cover of my paperback copy). Chad was swamped: Grace was left nursing stacks of her hardbacks.
So, did it live up to the hype?
Yes, it did.
This was one of the most readable 500-pages I have ever read. Whilst I am admittedly a sportaholic, baseball is one of my least favourites, but baseball is not the heart of the novel: it is the skeleton on which so much is draped.
The story revolves around Henry, a child prodigy of fielding who never seems to make a mistake, and his growth upon entering university, (sorry, college). The impetus that drives the entire novel is a simple but devastatingly effective question: what happens when perfection suddenly disappears? How does it affect you? How does it affect those around you? When a future that seemed mapped out for you is no longer relevant, how do you make sense of life?
At times, Henry barely seems to feature, as the lives and stories of several other characters intersect, interact and go their own ways, covering some fairly dark themes as well as the traditional ones of love, loss and growing up. But his journey and his highs and (very low) lows rebound and echo through the lives of the other four main characters, until building to an almost inevitable climax which reminded me (not for the first time) of John Irving‘s ‘A Prayer For Owen Meany,‘ (although, just as the ‘boy meets girl’ stories present are in no way clichéd or even particularly obtrusive, there is no jarring, centre-stage Hollywood happy ending here, for which I was eternally grateful).
A few favourite quotes, to give you a flavour of the occasionally arresting turns of phrase scattered throughout what is, essentially, a fairly basically written book:
“He lifted weights so he could chug his SuperBoost, so he could lift more weights, so he could chug more SuperBoost, lift, chug, lift, chug, trying to gather as many molecules as possible under the name Henry Skrimshander…”
“AVERT DISASTER, in fact, would have been a perfect school motto – the purpose of the place, as far as Schwarz could tell, was to keep three thousand would-be maniacs sedated by boredom until a succession of birthdays transformed them into adults…”
And one final quote sums up, firstly, the reason I find baseball less enjoyable than most other, less ‘mechanical’ sports, (one of the most apt descriptions I have ever heard); and secondly, the truth and, insight which can be drawn out of the topic, and which Harbach manages to maintain for the duration of this tale:
“Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn’t matter how well you performed sometimes, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren’t a painter or a writer – you didn’t work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn’t just your masterpieces that counted. What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability. Moments of inspiration were nothing compared to elimination of error…Can you perform on command, like a car, a furnace, a gun? Can you make that throw one hundred times out of one hundred? If it can’t be a hundred, it had better be ninety-nine…”