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Book review: “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach

Chad Harbach’s intention in “The Art of Fielding” seems to be to subvert the traditional sports story — boy of great talent hones his craft, reaches heights, stumbles but learns from his errors (sometimes, literally) to become a better player and man.

Here, Henry Skirmshander is a brilliant, if light-hitting, high school shortstop who is spotted by Mike Schwartz and recruited for the Westish College baseball team.

On campus, Schwartz, the team’s catcher and a year older than Henry, takes the willowy freshman under his wing. He teaches Henry how to train, bulks him up, sharpens his hitting and transforms him into the team’s leading batter, its field general and heart and soul.

Henry’s skill is so prodigious that, as his name is being talked about for one of the high draft rounds, he is on the verge of breaking the college record for games without an error, long held by his boyhood idol Aparicio Rodriguez. Rodriguez is not only a Hall-of-Fame legend but also the author of “The Art of Fielding,” a compendium of savvy and sometimes gnomic advice about how to play baseball and live life the right way.

So far so good, but, during the game in which Henry is expected to tie the record, he makes an errant throw that ends up in his team’s dugout, knocking out his roommate Owen.

Boy of great talent hones his craft, reaches heights, stumbles …..

But, in “The Art of Fielding,” Henry doesn’t learn from his error and become a better player and man.

Instead, everyone’s lives go to hell in a handbasket. Everybody being, Henry, Schwartz, Owen, Guert Affenlight (the college president and Owen’s gay lover) and Affenlight’s prodigal daughter Pella.

Maybe I didn’t like “The Art of Fielding” because it didn’t follow the hackneyed sport-story clichés.

Wallowing in their troubles

I think I didn’t like it because the five characters simply wallow in their troubles, refusing to come to grips with what life has dealt them — which, despite their troubles, is a lot more than most people have in terms of health, education, money and potential.

Henry’s attempt to be perfect — to play more errorless games than anyone else — fails, and he can’t deal with that failure.

“You improved little by little till the day it all became perfect and stayed that way. Forever,” Henry tells himself.

“He knew it sounded crazy when you put it like that. To want to be perfect. To want everything to be perfect. But now it felt like that was all he’d ever craved since he’d been born. Maybe it wasn’t even baseball that he loved but only this idea of perfection, a perfectly simply life in which every move had meaning, and baseball was just the medium through which he could make that happen.”

The four other characters of “The Art of Fielding” seem to have the same attitude. And, when perfection eludes them, they wilt. Life isn’t perfect, so, in each case, there’s a holding-back from involvement. A keeping of life at arm’s length.

Life has failed them, or they have failed life. So they float.

Lack of meaning

Another way to look at it is that the lack of perfection, for them, is the same as a lack of meaning. If life isn’t perfect, it has no meaning.

Maybe that’s what Harbach is attempting to capture — the angst-ridden ennui of people in a meaningless world. America, early 21st century.

That might make for an interesting novel. Here, however, Henry, Schwartz, Pella, Owen and Guert come across as whiners, as woe-is-me-ers, as floaters. They go from one interaction to the next, from one event to the next, without any internal compass.

They hurt each other’s feelings thoughtlessly. They wreck their bodies thoughtlessly. They act the victim, letting life make their choices for them.

They fear freedom.

“Henry knew better than to want freedom. The only life worth living was the unfree life, the life Schwartz had taught him, the life in which you were chained to your one true wish, the wish to be simple and perfect.”

But he and the rest of the cast of “The Art of Fielding” learn that life isn’t perfect. And life isn’t fair.

Their woefulness in the face of this reality — in a land of plenty (even in a time of minor belt-tightening) — is pretty lame.

Patrick T. Reardon

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