Book Review: “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach

"The Art of Fielding," by Chad Harbach

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.

Focusing on Baseball, Harbach Starts Strong

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.

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