The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
All right—this really is a book for mature readers, but it’s such wonderful storytelling on so many levels that I want to include a review of it. Add to that the fact that students often ask for good novels about sports, and other that a few short books written for struggling readers and a few more by Walter Dean Myers, I can’t think of any I’ve read that I genuinely like.
So if you want baseball action and you read at grade level or above; if you’re mature enough to read about how crazy and tangled relationships can get for both young adults in college and for older folks facing the end of midlife, you should try The Art of Fielding.
Mike Schwartz, catcher for the Westish College (Wisconsin) Harpooners is at a baseball tournament when he spots high school shortstop Henry Skrimshander. Henry is a natural, pure and simple: graceful, elegant, a joy to watch. Mike knows that Henry can help turn around the fate of the hapless Harpooners. And the Harpooners are Mike’s life blood.WestishCollegeis both his home and his family, as he is an orphan who has had a hard-scrabble life.
Once at Westish, Henry’s talent, before hidden from the public by his obscure beginnings, become evident to all. While the Harpooners succeed (with some extra help from a very good pitcher, Starblind), Mike knows that Henry can be a pro if he works hard enough. Mike is driven, with a singular intensity that borders on nutty, to help Henry make it to the show.
After 50 errorless games, Henry may soon tie the record (51) of a famous (and fictional) retired shortstop and author of a book (also The Art of Fielding) that Henry lives and dies by.
In that 51st game, Henry lets go of a wild throw that alters the course of the team and the lives of the characters: Henry’s; Mike’s; that of Henry’s roommate, Owen Dunne, a gay man (yes, it matters a lot in the novel) and lover of literature who reads in the dugout while awaiting his turn to bat; the school’s president, Guert Affenlight, lifelong playboy who suddenly, inexplicably finds that he has a crush on Owen; and Affenlight’s daughter, Pella, who ran away from her prestigious high school and married a much older man who had a speaking engagement there.
This novel works on so many levels. You can like it as a great baseball story. You can enjoy the considerable talent of the storyteller/author and the fact that this is just flat-out a good read. And if you love the classics, you get a super-bonus round: you’ll soon realize that the Harpooners are something like the crew of the Pequod, that Mike Schwartz is a more loveable Ahab, and that there are many connections to Moby-Dick. (There are lots of hints to lead you to this, not least of which is the college’s oft-mentioned statue of Melville and Affenlight’s publications on Melville.) Incidentally, if you really love reading, you’ll also see hints of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany in that wild throw of the baseball.
I recommend this book to all adults. To students, some frank talk: the reason this book is for mature readers is that there is some sexual description as pairs and then love triangles form. (These do appear very realistic in the college scene.) Beyond that, there is the issue of a much older man falling for a college student. While the student is an adult, and a relationship between the two is not illegal, it’s still unethical on the part of the college president. I did find it odd that a 60ish-year-old man who’d led a straight life—quite the playboy, in fact—would fall for a young man. However, the relationship and its fallout work in the context of the novel. So—this isn’t a book that you’d ever read for a class, and it’s only for mature readers who understand that just because something is part of the story (and people who are usually pretty good are engaging in it) doesn’t mean that it is being presented as a model for you.
And if you like baseball—Wow.