New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co., 2011. 528 pages. $25.99.
In the late 1990s, I moonlighted as a slap-hitting second baseman for the Kenyon College Lords, one of the most historically inept sports teams in NCAA history. I came into Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, a first novel about baseball at a liberal arts college, with suspicion. I’m no longer as charmed by those years spent shagging flies in the cold Ohio spring and studying late into the night as I once was. My experience at Kenyon now seems fairly interchangeable with the experiences of anyone who attended some other small respected college. To my surprise, Harbach’s novel made me appreciate that time in my life once again not because of the similarities between his novel and my experience but because he has crafted a world that manages to be both familiar and unique.
The Art of Fielding does not limit itself to being a “baseball book” or a collegiate bildungsroman. Though it centers on Henry Skrimshander, a slick-fielding shortstop cut from the Ozzie Smith mold, as he pursues the NCAA record for consecutive errorless games, the novel expands out from the diamond to address the multitude of small dramas unfolding at Westish College, “a small, venerable but . . . slightly decrepit liberal arts school on the western shore of Lake Michigan.”
Harbach surrounds Henry with a well-wrought cast of characters, each of whom gets to tell his or her story through close third-person narrations. There is Mike Schwartz, Henry’s best friend and the team’s catcher, who is facing an uncertain future after being rejected by every law school he applied to; Owen Dunne, Henry’s gay, racially-mixed roommate, who begins a relationship with the previously heterosexual president of Westish, Guert Affenlight; and there is Affenlight’s daughter, Pella, who returns to the nest at twenty-three to escape her marriage.
While Harbach has received due praise for writing a novel that explores the nuances of male relationships, it is the character of Pella who ties the novel together. Pella travels to Westish in the midst of “the kind of emphatic gesture she was famous for,” carrying only a wicker bag from a beach trip taken nine months prior. She’s left her husband David, an architect ten years her senior who convinced Pella to marry him when she was still in boarding school. Pella has missed out on precisely the experience that a school like Westish sells to its students and their deep-pocketed parents—four transformative years of intense study, character-building, and a sprinkle of experimentation before adulthood. Unlike the men in the book, who are sheltered by Westish from the “real world” (pardon the phrase, but what else to call it?), Pella comes to Westish to recover from the bruises of that world.
Harbach is at his best when he captures the breakdown of Pella’s marriage to the controlling David and her own diminishing sense of self in a beautiful scene about unexplained desire. He writes:
Once, late at night, not long after she’d moved to San Francisco, she’d really, really wanted to cut up a slightly mushy avocado and rub the pit in her palms. It was an ecstasy-type desire, though she hadn’t taken ecstasy. She made David drive her to three supermarkets to find the right avocado. She told him she was craving guacamole—a more acceptable urge, if just barely. Luckily he’d fallen asleep while she was rolling the slimy pit in her palms, pretending to make guacamole. In the morning, having buried the chips and yellow mush in the trash, she claimed to have eaten it all. She still had no idea how to make guacamole.
Harbach encapsulates all of Pella’s sadness in a scene unexpected and entirely authentic. She is embarrassed by her desire, tells a white lie to avoid explaining herself, and yet she is dependent on David. She is trapped. When he falls asleep, Pella is relieved because he will not witness this passionate moment with the pit of an avocado, and the fact that she can’t share that with him is all the proof we need to know the marriage was doomed.
Westish proves itself capable of understanding Pella even when she doesn’t understand herself. She rebuilds her life without the help of her father, who is wrapped up in his sexual experimentations with Owen. A beauty who’s put on extra weight, Pella’s first act is to trek through the early morning snow to the college pool and begin regaining her strength. Harbach, who peppers the book with references to “masculine thinkers”—the stoics, Emerson, Melville—suggests those supposedly male values apply equally to Pella. Pella knows one must first understand her body and then work on the mind. Unlike the men in the book, who romanticize these philosophies as some sort of creed to live by, for Pella they are simply common sense.
Both Henry and Mike are behind Pella on this curve of self-realization. The men in the novel must first realize they are fallible and then confront those failures. Henry loses the ability to throw a baseball accurately and comes to understand that striving for perfection in a game where even the best hitters are successful only three times out of ten is flawed ambition. Mike must accept that Yale Law is not where he belongs, that even though he tells us that, “Those who cannot do, coach,” he is more coach than talent. And Guert Affenlight, at his advanced age, learns to accept and then act on his sexual desire, which is not a failure but taboo, considering the circumstances. But Pella has already embraced her imperfections. Though she is the most “broken” character in The Art of Fielding, she is also its wisest.