A sports novel with a twist
Reviewed by John Sullivan
There is a paradox at the heart of baseball, or any other sport for that matter. It is loved because on some level it is considered an art form. As Chad Harbach writes in The Art of Fielding “… baseball is a somewhat pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, and which sidesteps attempts to paraphrase its value, yet somehow seems to communicate something true or even critical about the Human Condition.” Baseball really shouldn’t matter, but it does.
Ok, I’ll buy that. Baseball is an art form. So, how big is the canvas? How far can a player push his art? Is there such a thing as a perfect player, a perfect play? And if perfection is possible in sport/art, what happens when we get there? These are the lines of thinking Harbach pursues with locker room wisdom and backyard wonder.
His notions queue up at Westish University, a fictional liberal arts college on the shore of Lake Michigan. Henry Skrimshander, shortstop for the Westish Harpooners, is about to set the single season record for errorless games. He is nothing short of a revelation; the effortlessness with which he plays the position approaches a zen-like state.
Off the field, rarely separated from the crook in Henry’s arm, is the unofficially recognised baseball bible (also titled The Art of Fielding) a guidebook penned by Aparicio Rodriguez, holder of the aforementioned record.
Rodriguez’ book is not a mechanical salute to technique but a papyrus of monkish reminders, a spiritual manifesto. It’s concerned with preparing a player’s inner eye, readying him to play shortstop, the most challenging position on the field. It contains such psyche-affirming pronouncements as: “The shortstop has worked so hard for so long that he no longer thinks. Nor does he act. By this I mean that he does not generate action. He only reacts, the way a mirror reacts when you wave a hand before it.”
It’s all pretty much a nod to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, theorising that perfection is expressionless and that “expressionless expresses God”. Henry’s teammates recognise and marvel at his skill level, but can never really know it. They play outside of the ivory shell, not so much pushing for perfection as striving for competence.
Then comes the moment: Henry has already tied the errorless streak and is seeking to pass it. It’s a cringe-worthy moment when he uncorks the impossible error. This turns into a plotline special. The stray toss strikes Skrimshander’s best friend in the cheekbone, nearly killing him. As for Henry’s perfect stint on earth, it’s time to hit the showers.
This is no spoiler; the freak error occurs early in the book. That’s when Harbach turns his attention to what happens when perfection makes a pivot. When the game shifts from being played on the field to being played in the head. It seems that little good happens once the brain gets overly involved. Henry undergoes a breakdown, errors pile on errors; he can barely release the ball for fear of making a bad throw. It’s a spiritual crisis stitched into the shape of a small, hard sphere. Henry second-guesses his every move once he knows that mistakes can happen. Slowly, his life unravels.
If this all feels too ‘thinky’ for a sports novel, realise that Henry Skrimshander has, in his gangly South Dakotan way, managed to incorporate The Art of Fielding into his very being. He plays out philosophies to perfection, never thinking, ever reacting, always unassuming. He has even managed to capture the eyes of major league scouts. His is the great American story. A comet appearing from nowhere, winging its silvery tail, humble as pie and a virgin to boot. And then the fall from grace.
Without resorting to preaching, Harbach pecks at his queries again and again. By tempting perfection, do we supersede it? Do we lose our personal God? And once we pass perfection, do we end up on a rocky outpost, alone, out of fate’s hand?
And then he delves deeper, posing the notion that spiritual failure is most profound when it enters the realm of sports— its most pedestrian, banal place.
As first-time novelists are apt to, Harbach occasionally drifts into wooden dialogue, casts an unlikely love triangle, contrives too many deaths and near-deaths and finally uncorks one head-scratcher of a plot twist at the end. The puppet strings are too visible in places. But honestly, who knows, maybe it’s just my own cynicism rearing its head, finding imperfection where possibly none exists.
Twenty-five years ago, I can safely say that The Hotel New Hampshire was the first book I ever fell in love with. The oddball characters embracing their failures, the romances washing up on reality, the constant selflessness required to construct a mundane, magical life. I was ripe for all of it. I somehow get the feeling that not a handful of today’s 20-somethings will read The Art of Fielding and fall in love with literature for the first time as well.
What John Irving conjured, Harbach revisits here with fresh, wide-open eyes. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of, and to be sure, innocence–and the belief in perfection–is still a part of the great American dream.