The Art of Fielding

The Art of Fielding
by Chad Harbach
2011 / 515 pages
rating 9

This is one lovely and finely crafted  novel – spellbinding might be a good word.   But it’s thematically very complex with themes layered and marbled through the lives of the characters.   I suppose it’s mostly about the stresses of life,  about winning,  losing,  chance,  change and the varieties of love – all in the sports department of a small midwestern college.


* * Henry Skrimshander –  shortstop – winner then a kink – lost his golden touch!
(name from Moby Dick)
* Owen Dunne – ball player gets hit by ball in the face – gay –  was gorgeous!
* Mike Schwartz – ball player for life – then law? But plans go awry – no acceptance!
* Guert Affenlight – college dean – single father, Moby Dick scholar,  falls for Owen
(name likely from Gustav von Aschenbach – A Death in Venice by Thomas Mann – similar characters)
* Pella Affenlight –  single 22 or so, left s.o. returns to Wisc and now  likes Mike!
* Genevieve Dunne – Owen’s black beautiful mother,  infatuated with Guert – at least for awhile.

There is a lot of pain in most all of the characters – maybe not in Owen (the Buddha) or his mother.  Everyone else is self-medicating and/or getting obsessive about stuff.

PLOT: So the book follows these relationships as Henry loses his hot-winning groove,  Affenlight finds himself in a gay relationship,  Schwartz gets involved with a woman, is out of law school, is too much in the game,  Pella gets a divorce,  etc.  They’re all very inter-related – dependent –  situations.  Stresses on everyone.

SETTING:  – Westish College – “Moby Dick U”  – in Wisconsin – cold,  prudish,  midwestern, sports is all,  seasons are important,  Other college novels are “The Secret History,”  by Donna Tartt,   “Stoner” by  John Williams,  “I Am Charlotte Simmons” by Tom Wolfe,  “Zuleika Dobson” by Max Behrbohm,   others and many more – I think it’s a fine tradition.


I think stress may be the major theme here – what it does to us and how everything is connected.

fate – changes –  stress –  are we to blame or are others,  how about the situation?  How about pure-d luck?   We might have our plans but then we find  the gods are laughing – So why did Henry miss that throw and hit Owen in the first place?  Was it because his mentor,  Mike,  was getting rejection slips from the law schools?  Owen lands in the hospital and Affenlight visits and look at what that starts.  Pella would have come back to Westish anyway due to divorce but that’s just adding fuel to the stress fire for others.   Virtually all of the characters seem to be affected by it – Henry, Mike, Affenlight, Pella,  how about family and money and status?  Only Owen, the Buddha,  seems immune to stress.

And there’s the issue of over-dependence on others – dysfunction – interwoven relationships to the point of losing your self –  falling in love,  divorce,  team-playing,  between all sorts of people  gay, straight, ball-players or not.  Also dependence on various chemicals,  tobacco, booze,  Advil, pot, sleep,  vicodin?    The anxiety of influence – in baseball? – sure,  why not?   Probably the dependance on dopamine for the jocks.

HUMOR:  – it’s very funny – almost light but not quite – it’s serious biz.

STYLE / STRUCTURE:  – – third person intimate omniscient – back and forth between characters as their characters evolve,  the  varying story threads unravel in traditional time structure.   Actually,  there may be two narrators at work here – one of them describes what’s going on with the plot and inside the characters’ heads etc.  But there’s another level where the narrator seems to be speaking out on his own.  See the quote below for one place.

“Nineteen seventy-three.   In the public imagination it was as fraught a year as you could name:  Watergate,  Roe v. Wade,  withdrawal from Vietnam.  Gravity’s Rainbow. Was it also the year that Prufrockian paralysis went mainstream— the year it entered baseball?  It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation— the Modernists of the First World War— would take a while to reveal itself throughout the population.   And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action,  then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the realm of utmost confidence in same: the realm of professional sport.  In fact, that might make for a workable definition of the postmodernist era: an era when even the athletes were anguished Modernists.  In which case the American postmodern period began in spring 1973, when a pitcher named Steve Blass lost his aim.”   (loc 5216 – Kindle)

HISTORICAL REFERENCES:  (Luis is not in the book but the name Aparico is important for being a ball player as well as an author)

In the 1971 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles, Blass pitched two complete game wins, allowing only seven hits and two runs in 18 innings. He finished second in the voting for World Series MVPbehind teammate Roberto Clemente.

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