Friday, December 30, 2011

Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding

I can understand why Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding has received so much acclaim. I couldn't stop thinking of Richard Russo as I read it because there are a lot of similarities. A small liberal arts college town (though in Wiconsin rather than the northeast), painstaking character development, out-sized characters doing sometimes out-sized things, and injection of humor all come together as people's lives crisscross and are transformed by different kinds of traumas.

Baseball is a major theme of the book, though you wouldn't even need to care about baseball to enjoy it. Two of the main characters are teammates on the college baseball team, and one of them--who sees baseball in Zen-like manner--develops Steve Blass Disease, meaning that you suddenly cannot throw accurately (given my generation and the fact that he was an infielder, I immediately conjured up Steve Sax). That sets in motion a whole series of consequences on the field and in the characters' private lives that ripple out. But another major theme is Moby Dick (for reasons the novel goes into, the college's sports teams have the name Harpooners) and literature more generally. This is a group of people who are unusually well read.

It is a coming-of-age story, since the majority of the main characters are college-aged, but I found it went beyond that. Death, marriage, homosexuality, drug addiction (albeit mild), academic success and failure, and even baseball rituals are all examined in interesting ways.

For another take, I think the NYT does a good job reviewing it.


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