Being a baseball fan is not a pre-requisite for enjoying The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. I like baseball – it’s obviously not a major spectator sport in Australia but I think if I lived in the US, I’d be a fan (Yankees all the way). I enjoy the theatre of baseball – batters winding up, umpires yelling “Strrrriiiiiiike!”, and of course the glory of a home run. Harbach puts it all on paper in an unlikely combination of college campus story meets baseball, bromances and books.
“Reading aloud was already borderline intimate, one voice, two pairs of ears, well-shaped words…”
At first this book seems a bit of a trick – it ambles along, albeit beautifully written ambling – “Pella woke into the charcoal hum of predawn.”
But with the sporting theme, Harbach is given licence to add lots of climatic baseball-related plot points. They’re gripping. You can’t help but cheer on the team.
“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. But baseball was different. Schwartz thought of it as Homeric – not a scrum but a series of isolated contests. Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball.”
And then Harbach throws in a few curveballs – I’m not a fan of spoilers so I won’t reveal anything but wow, it’s a seriously good story. You feel for these characters. You know them. You want them to succeed.
The main character, Henry, is so awkward, so naive, so gauche that it’s endearing.
“‘What’s wrong with these jeans?” Henry looked down at his legs. It wasn’t a rhetorical question: there was clearly something wrong with his jeans. He’d realized as much since arriving at Westish, just as he’d realized there was something wrong with his shoes, his hair, his backpack, and everything else. But he didn’t know quite what it was. The way Eskimos had a hundred words for snow, he had only one for jeans.”
I’m somewhat concerned that this book will be made into a film. It has ‘movie’ written all over it but I hope that doesn’t happen. The subtleties of the characters would look brash and stereo-typed on the big screen. The drama of the baseball games would be all too obvious and the real plot points would seem over the top or worse, dismissed altogether in favour of the classic-Hollywood-nail-biter-sports-movie. Whereas in the book, the baseball is just the back drop – a divisive backdrop, but simply a scene-setter for a deeply emotional story.
Mention must be made of Harbach’s character names – Henry Skrimshander, Adam Starblind, Guert Affenlight. Again, it’s that theatrical element that’s familiar to baseball. Look down the player list of any major baseball team in the US and the names are equally as flamboyant (and must be read as if you are announcing the player to the pitch, with rolling ‘h’s and ‘r’s, long vowels and as much flair as possible) – Daryl Strawberry, Derek Jeeter, Nick Swisher, Chuck Knoblauch and Adrián Hernández being amongst my favourites at the Yankees. I had a brief moment to talk to Harbach at the Wheeler Centre presentation and I told him I loved the character names. He responded, “I had a lot of fun with them!”.
Deciding on what to pair The Art of Fielding with was a no-brainer – baseball’s favourite food, the hotdog. I must admit, I’m not a fan of the hotdog – in Australia, that is. I think I’ve seen one too many sitting in greasy, tepid water at 7-11. Eating a hotdog at the baseball in the US is a whole different story. For whatever reason, they get them just right (I suspect it’s a lot to do with turnover!).
5/5 Take me out to the ballgame!