It’s not a coincidence that perfectionism is on my brain (although a post comparing myself to a racehorse has been in the works for awhile) because Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is up to the plate of my series Writers are Readers (see what I did there?). When it came out in 2011 everyone was talking about it. For some reason, I didn’t want to read it. I can’t say I had a good reason because as soon as I finally (a few weeks ago) actually read the back, I wanted to read it. What can I say except that I can be contrary? Is this news to anyone?
The novel tells the story of Henry’s college baseball career, through five characters: his mentor, Mike Schwartz; the school president, Guert Affenlight; Guert’s daughter, Pella; Henry’s roommate, Owen Dunne; and Henry Skrimshander himself. The novel’s pace is unhurried while the shape of it carefully plotted–each of these character’s play an important role in Henry’s story, yes, and yet each of them have their own unique stories going on as well. The author, Harbach, builds the structure in such a way that I did actually care about each of these characters and the outcome for each of them, not such an easy feat. The book felt exactly the right length–again, not such an easy feat.
Basically, Henry is a tiny kid who shouldn’t be amazing at baseball but somehow is and for three years a lot of people, Henry himself included, pour all of their resources into him to make him the best there is. But one day, the mechanical and yes, perfect Henry, experiences something that’s never happened to him before: he makes an error. (For those of you who don’t know baseball, this is a literal baseball term. “What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see? (Harbach, 259).)
That’s the crazy thing about baseball I always felt throughout my brother’s career and Harbach’s Mike Schwartz puts it into perspective brilliantly: “But no matter how much (Henry) chattered or cheered or bounced around, there was always something frighteningly aloof in his eyes, like a soloist so at one with the music he can’t be reached. You can’t follow me here, those mild blue eyes seemed to say. You’ll never know what it’s like…These days Henry walked onto the diamond, those eyes were saying the same thing but with a rising undercurrent of terror. You’ll never know what this is like. Baseball, in its quiet way, was an extravagantly harrowing game. Football, basketball, hockey, lacrosse–these were melee sports. You could make yourself useful by hustling and scrapping more than the other guy. You could redeem yourself through sheer desire. Baseball was different” (Harbach, 259).
I always said there was something magical about watching my brother play baseball. He played as if he was born to do it–the way he could hit home run after home run, no matter what type of pressure he was under, the way he popped up from the catcher’s crouch to make the perfect throw to second. Watching him…sometimes I would get a lump in my throat, not because I love baseball so much but because there is something emotional about watching someone be so good at something, like listening to a beautiful piece of music or watching a movie with actors that make you cry. He went on to play in college and then, at some point, he had enough.
As I write this, the story is incredibly familiar because when my brother, Joey, stopped playing baseball, I think it was harder on my parents, his coaches and mentors, than it was on Joey. But then again, who can say? When you see someone with so much natural talent, it’s natural that people want to pour everything they can into that person and so it happens that when Henry makes his error, Henry is not the only one who ultimately spins out of control.
Yes, this is a book about baseball. But it’s 500 pages and it certainly not 500 pages about baseball. It’s about college, perfectionism, failure, goals, where people come from, what truly makes up a person, friendship, the midwest, literature, family that you have and family that you choose, and a million other minute themes weaving their way through the story.
However, Harbach should be commended for the way he writes about baseball. It’s not an easy thing to keep a reader entertained writing about a sport in a new or interesting way…the same way it would be difficult to write about a pianist for 500 pages in new way. Meanwhile, his humor is sly and I laughed out loud many times. He nails the college experience as well.
I felt for Henry. Gosh, the pressure on that poor kid. I saw so much of how I used to look at the world in this passage (and I never played baseball/softball): “All he’d ever wanted was for nothing to ever change. Or for things to change only in the right ways, improving little by little, day by day, forever. It sounded crazy when you said it like that, but that was what baseball had promised him, what Westish College had promised him, what Schwartzy had promised him. The dream of every day the same. Everyday was like the day before but a little better. You ran the stadium a little faster. You bench pressed a little more. You hit the ball a little harder in the cage; you watched the tape with Schwartzy afterward and gained a little insight into your swing. Your swing grew a little simpler. Everything grew simpler, little by little. You ate the same food, woke up at the same time, wore the same clothes. Hitches, bad habits, useless thoughts–whatever you didn’t need slowly fell away…You improved little by little till the day it all became perfect and stayed that way forever” (Harbach, 345).
I used to believe those same exact things. It was extremely frightening for me to realize, when I finally did, that I built my life on a premise that simply wasn’t true or even possible. The same is true for Henry: “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 all he’d ever craved since he’d been born. Maybe it wasn’t even baseball that he loved but only the idea of perfection” (Harbach, 346).
You do not need to like baseball to like this book, or even sports in general. But you will love it more if you do love sports or even sports movies (you know, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, etc.). There are touching moments that have nothing whatsoever to do with baseball: “You told me once that a soul isn’t something a person is born with but something that must be built by effort and error, study and love” (Harbach, 503). And yet, there are hilarious lines that have everything to do with being an athlete in capital letters: “I told them only cheerleaders get anorexia. You’re a ballplayer–you’re having a spiritual crisis.” Schwartz’s smile returned, rueful this time. “They thought I was being serious” (Harbach, 479).
Four stars out of five stars.