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Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding tells the tale of Westish College, a D-III school in northwest Wisconsin. Their athletic program has historically been about as successful as any tiny, unheard-of school ever is, but that changes when catcher Mike Schwartz discovers defensive wunderkind Henry Skrimshander one summer and convinces him to come to Westish and play shortstop for the Harpooners. The book follows Skrimshander’s successes, struggles and repercussions for the other characters.
The Art of Fielding (named for a mythological treatise on playing shortstop by that Skrimshander basically memorizes) follows fiction’s standard three-act structure: introduce the characters, introduce the conflict, resolve the conflict. But since most of the people in this book play baseball, perhaps depicting it as a nine-inning game would be more appropriate.
Harbach breezes through the first three innings, going once through the lineup without making a mistake. He writes with an easy-going, briskly paced style that taps into all of baseball’s nostalgia without giving up the setting of a modern college. Students text, listen to iPods, play Tetris – it’s hard to romanticize the modern college experience, but Harbach pulls it off admirably.
We meet Schwartz first, then Skrimshander, and the first few chapters are almost exclusively about baseball. Then we meet Guert Affenlight, the school’s president, and finally his grown-up daughter Pella. Harbach’s most cerebral, psychologically complex character, Pella shifts the book’s tone from a breezy, fast-moving narrative to a plodding, psychological exploration of all four characters.
Harbach knows how to write thought processes, and none of the extended interior monologues that fill the middle of the book feel unrealistic. Unfortunately, there are just too many of them, and it kills the book’s pace. While three-plus years go by in the first 70 pages, a period of at most two months requires over 400.
During these middle innings of the book, when each character’s problem arises, Harbach wastes too many pitches, continually missing the outside corner and not getting the calls. Not every problem requires so many pages to solve, and Harbach takes too long resolving those that aren’t actually all that difficult. When the reader figures out the solution 150 pages ahead of the character, that’s bad.
Because Skrimshander is the most one-dimensional character, his problem is also the simplest: he can’t play defense anymore. And because his baseball identity defines the rest of him, losing that results in a deep-seated depression.
As much as Harbach seems to understand baseball, he either doesn’t know or willfully ignores the field of sports psychology. He mentions Steve Blass repeatedly, the pitcher who so famously and inexplicably lost his ability to throw, retiring just three seasons after throwing two complete-game shutouts in the 1971 World Series.
Skrimshander, it would seem, contracts “Steve Blass Disease,” suddenly and permanently losing his ability to throw to first. But Blass has said that had he played 30 years later, modern treatments for performance anxiety probably would’ve prolonged his career.
Skrimshander’s problem can be resolved through therapy, but it goes untreated because all of the characters deny it exists. Denial may be a common problem among athletes, but Harbach uses it as a crutch, falling back on it to prolong a conflict whose repercussions give rise to the others.
Harbach could’ve introduced all the other conflicts with plenty of time to resolve them without spending soooo many pages on a problem with a clear solution. Skrimshander’s problem either needed to come later in the book or get resolved sooner. Either way, performance anxiety can’t be the linchpin of the middle innings.
The final innings of The Art of Fielding wrap things up competently. Every character’s problem gets resolved in one way or another, even though the reader has long since determined the inevitable solution, and the Harpooners perform exceedingly well in Skrimshander’s absence. But because the middle takes so long, the ending just feels like a relief.
The Art of Fielding ends with a whimper, not a bang, and the final baseball game – the D-III national championship – doesn’t satisfy at all. The novel goes from an energetic, exciting opening to a sluggish, grinding middle that takes way too long. The end can’t save book from the frustratingly long middle, and the reader doesn’t put the book down feeling satisfied. Mostly, the reader is just glad it’s over.
Chad Harbach may be the literary world’s Daisuke Matsuzaka: undeniably talented, but unable to put it together for nine innings.