There are few genres that I genuinely have no interest in. Handbooks on DIY is one of them and sports literature is another. Yet I’ve found myself reading and enjoying what can very easily be termed a book about baseball. I will come clean immediately and say that I know nothing about baseball. Absolutely nothing. I have never watched a game, have no idea what the rules are or how many players it involves or even who might be celebrities in the baseball world. I imagine it to be a kind of upmarket version of rounders with slightly more action and slightly less misses but really, I have no clue.
So Chad Harbach’s 2011 novel “The Art of Fielding” was an eye-opener. I actually thought the title referred to art made by an artist called Fielding… yes I’m blonde. Sorry. Turns out that’s not the case. Turns out that “The Art of Fielding” is a book (within a book) that young Henry Skrimshander treats as his personal bible. His one passion in life is baseball but he has no real idea of his own talent until he is spotted by Mike Schwarz, a baseball player at Westish College, a fictional but traditional liberal arts college. Suddenly and much to his own surprise, small-town boy Henry finds himself enrolled at Westish on a sports grant, living with decidedly gay roommate Owen who takes him shopping and training at the gym with his new team mates. Slowly but surely Henry grows physically – from a small, lean boy into a bulky baseball player, from a diamond in the rough into a real, recognized talent – but mentally it’s a much more difficult growth for him as the lines between his own dreams and the ambitions of his mentor Schwarz blur.
Westish is also home to President Affenlight, a former Harvard professor who has two loves in his life: his daughter Pella and Melville’s novel “Moby Dick”. Affenlight is a lovely man who has been led on his path of life by events often outside of his control and who has followed his passion for the whale novel and turned it into a career. He lives alone and is quite happy in a lonely way until one day his daughter Pella, a privileged child of academia who ran away from her private education to marry a much older man, returns from her failed marriage in California. Pella is bruised in the way that you only become when you realize that by following your own headstrong ideas and go up against your parents, your friends and conventions, you’ve actually sabotaged yourself. So with nothing more than a bathing suit and a tattered beach bag, Pella returns home to start a new life and kick her anti-depressant addiction.
The lives of all of these characters weave together in stories and each and every one of those stories could have been a book in its own right. The characters are strong and well-written and interesting. They have flaws and are real living people, not just clichés or stereotypes, I wanted to know them. I guess that is the strength of this novel, it’s real-ness and that the characters are relatable, even if wouldn’t know what’s up or down on a baseball.
It is a stunning novel, a piece of art and it wouldn’t be entirely unfair to call it a great American novel. It reminded me in some ways of Tom Wolfe’s “I am Charlotte Simmons” but “The Art of Fielding” is better, more well-written and doesn’t suffer the clichés (and horrible sex scenes) that drag “I am Charlotte Simmons” down. If you have an interest in baseball you have to read it. If you couldn’t care less about baseball, you still have to read it. Because it’s not really about baseball. It is about love, passion, talent, doubt. About following your dreams or following someone else’s dreams.