The Art of FieldingThe Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Baseball. Such magic and possibility, such aromas and images and sounds and yearnings this simple, two-syllable word conveys to those lucky or cursed to be caught in its spell. A sport chock full of rules only a pedant could love, heaps of statistics that confound mathematicians, games that last so long enjoyment gives way to endurance… Yet it is holds a singular place in our national lore, leaving us starry-eyed for summers and lovers, for youth and potential that we imagine we once possessed. Baseball is for dreamers. Baseball is for writers.

Baseball. Professional sports shenanigans have burst the bubbles of homespun mystique the major leagues blew our way. The fan must now look with eager hope to the minor and collegiate levels. Chad Harbach nimbly drops us into the latter, playing an easy game of catch with our hearts. Before we know it night has fallen and we can hardly see the white sphere as it’s lobbed from yards away. In the distance we can hear our mom calling “Dinner!” from the back porch on this warm, breezy summer’s night.

Baseball. No, you don’t need to care about the sport or know a shortstop from a pinch-hitter to enjoy this book. But if you do, you’ll have at least an inkling of the angels and demons that nibble at these characters’ brains. And knees. And lower backs. And shoulders. And hearts.

The Art of Fielding is a bit of precious fantasy. A fantasy of well-intentioned, smart, driven young men living pretty lives at a well-intentioned, smart, driven liberal arts college on the shores of Lake Michigan in wholesome, milk-fed Wisconsin. By holding the real world at bay, Harbach can indulge in a writer’s fantasy world where co-eds spout Emerson and Whitman, where the college’s star football/baseball player spends the wee hours before his next gut-spewing workout poring over his senior thesis on Aristophanes.

But Harbach tells a marvelous story with characters so fully realized that it seems any break with reality is the doing of characters and the choices they make. They own this story. Harbach owns the team, but his characters are the ones out there swinging for the home run. It is a story not just of baseball, but of the ivory towers of academe, about a father and a daughter, about coming of age and coming to terms with aging. It is a story of friendship, of true love and of love when it’s convenient.

I have a feeling about this book. I think Harbach entered a zen zone of storytelling by writing about our national past-time. There’s really no way to tell a GOOD story about baseball but that the author must slow down, give each play time to unfold, each team member his place on the field and be patient as the game takes shape.

Interestingly, this epic debut — epic for its advance, epic for the attention it has received — has been compared in substance and style to Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, authors I have read once and have no interest in reading again, to be frank. I thought instead of John Irving, Jhumpa Lahiri, Philip Roth, John Updike — writers who have penned novels I have adored and novels I have loathed. But of their works I have loved, it’s the richness of the story and fullness of the characters that enchanted me.

Somehow I find myself holding back that “It was amazing” fifth star. Maybe I give a higher nod to historical fiction where the author has to work harder to find the right tone, language and props for a setting and era beyond his or her experience.

Perhaps this is a case where rankings are essentially meaningless. I’ll let thoughts settle a bit more, but in all fairness, this was a book I didn’t want to put down. That’s my highest recommendation.

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