The Art of Fielding
If Art Imitates Life, Art of Fielding Imitates the Art of HarbachNever before had Mike Schwartz seen a player as naturally gifted as Henry Skrimshander. Through meticulously crafted prose, readers of The Art of Fielding are immediately brought into Mike's world as he stands in awe of the talent that plays shortstop before him. With each at batter that steps up to the plate, "the Skrimmer" embodies a deftness in fielding that was formally unseen as he aptly handles the ball and directs his teammates to where they need to be. Henry has talent, in abundance. He transcends the game. Sure he's a little green, but the potential he embodies overwhelms Mike Schwartz.Schwartz, a freshman at Westish College, unilaterally recruits Henry to play ball at his fictional Wisconsin school and through Mike's dedicated cultivation of a person, within three years Henry becomes a world-class ball player. It's not easy. Henry's college life is filled with pitfalls, distractions, and colorfully named people like Guert Affenlight and Adam Starblind. In Chad Harbach's novel, Henry's college experience is as rich, exciting, and humorous as one should expect. As someone who went to college on the western shores of Lake Michigan, Harbach brought me home.Through the capable hands of team captain, Mike Schwartz, Henry becomes a big league prospect with contracts worth hundreds of thousands thrown at him. Henry's giftedness makes him an unstoppable force that makes him irresistible to scouts. He's destined for greatness, but then something goes horribly awry.What happens? Let's just say life dramatically gets more complicated. Henry loses direction--loses focus. He descends into self-destructive behavior as the reader spends the second half of the novel shouting at the pages hoping to shake Henry out of his stupor. Henry's talent isn't gone; in fact, it remains ever-present. The problem is Henry can't bring his life around to a point where he can marshall his talents when they're needed most.Chad Harbach, err, I mean Henry Skrimshander--wait, no, I did mean Chad Harbach--has tons of talent, but it is wasted during the second half of The Art of Fielding. Henry's story is Harbach's story. A phenomenally gifted writer who starts out stunningly strong. It's no wonder the literary scouts at Little, Brown, and Co awarded him hundreds of thousands of dollars for this first novel. Like his character Mike Schwartz, they found talent that is so rare in this world, but also, like Henry, Harbach's talent is utterly wasted during the second half of the novel.As Henry's life loses focus, so does Harbach's writing. Secondary characters are elevated to primacy, relationships go off in trajectories that are completely unbelievable--only a naïve college senior can honestly think life resolves itself this way. Just as the Skrimmer can't figure out what he wants to do with his life, Harbach seems to have the same problem with his novel. Does he want his tome to be the great 21st Century baseball novel or just another well-written (and slightly too tawdry) entry into LGBT mainstream literature? I don't know; I'm not sure Harbach knows either.There was a weird sense of symmetry I sensed as Henry's life came to an unbelievable conclusion. The novel not only ended somewhere very different than where it seemed to be headed, Henry's resolution to his new station in life was as unsatisfactory as Harbach's novel was. Just as I felt bad for Henry that his giftedness was ill-fated to be wasted due to his destination, I also felt a sense of loss for Harbach because he apparently couldn't envision a destination worthy of both Henry and his novel. Both Chad Harbach and his character Henry Skrimshander deserved much better.Fortunately, Chad can do something about it--hopefully, his next novel's story is worthy of his of his giftedness.