As the Best Books of the Year lists started to surface on the web, the title I saw most frequently was The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. Apparently those who are wired into the literary circles of the northeast knew this writer and had been expecting this debut novel from the Harvard grad for some time. After reading the book’s description on Amazon, I knew I would have to read this book. The story follows Henry, a young undersized but incredibly slick-fielding shortstop, as he lands a spot on the roster of a small Midwestern Division III college baseball team. He fields a baseball like Mozart played the piano, but his brilliance is only realized after careful observation because is he so small and scrawny.
This sounded familiar. . .
For those who don’t know me, I was a 105 lbs shortstop when I entered high school, and 140 lbs dripping wet when I was fortunate enough to find a college in Middle Tennessee State that would give me a partial scholarship to play ball. In Fielding, Henry packs on some muscle and becomes a better hitter once at college, enabling him to attract the attention of pro scouts just like yours truly. Why am I not suing Harbach for writing my tale? Well, for one, my roommate and fellow teammate was not gay (unless Snyder is a great actor and his current wife and kids are an elaborate sham) like that of Henry’s roomie in Harbach’s book.
Also Henry is a bit naïve and dim, almost oblivious to his skills. He just knows he loves to play and he does it brilliantly without ever thinking. This fact becomes an important plot point later. The upperclassman named Schwartz, who recognizes Henry’s skill and recruits him to Westish college, becomes the hero of the book. This hard working, hard living brute is brilliantly portrayed as are most of the ball players in Fielding. The scenes involving baseball and the off-season weight training are spot on. There are plenty of laughs and there is plenty of heart throughout. A good portion of the story leaves baseball in the periphery and becomes more familiar to readers of scholarly fiction that often thumbs its nose at books by the Connellys and Cornwells.
The writer in me was a little bitter as I started reading. I have written a baseball book that I thought transcended the sport. I am a much better writer now than when I wrote The Ball Player, but I still feel it is good work. If Chad Harbach could get a $650,000 advance, as was reported, for The Art of Fielding than surely The Ball Player should have fetched me at least 20K, right? Wrong.
So it took a little doing to shrug aside the salty snarl that kept my lips curled through chapter one and two. But once I forced myself to view Harbach as a kindred spirit, I began to enjoy his masterpiece. I call it that because it is - a work done with extraordinary skill; a supreme intellectual or artistic achievement (Merriam-Webster’s). This novel is not for the all-American baseball fan. If pitched this book, a Hollywood producer might hear, “It’s Bull Durham meets Brokeback Mountain.” This comparison might seem glib, but it should ward off readers with peculiar sensibilities.
Read The Art of Fielding. Just don’t expect to loan it from your Kindle or Nook. The publisher felt it was so impressive that to have it bounce around the world electronically might tarnish it, or at least its ability to earn back the advance. And if you have read Fielding, next read The Ball Player. Available now at claysnellgrove.com.