Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Art of Fielding a book of rare generosity, insight and skill

Book 108: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach 

One hundred and seven books preceded The Art of Fielding in 2011.  One hundred and seven books of various quality, interest and appeal, yet none so luminous or evocative as this extraordinary first novel by Chad Harbach.

Set in Westish College, a small, liberal arts institution nestled along the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, The Art of Fielding is the story of five intrepid individuals' search for perfection --  in love and life, in one another and on the Elysian fields of the baseball diamond.

Chief among them is Henry Skrimshander, a quiet, self-effacing student, who truly becomes larger than life when he steps onto the baseball field.  A shortstop of unassuming proportions, Henry is the rare athlete who brings elegance and intelligence to his craft.

Henry's own drive for excellence is a given a boost by Mike Schwartz. Catcher and team captain for the Westish Harpooners, Schwartz is Henry's friend, mentor and coach -- although an admittedly reluctant one:

"That was why he didn't want to go into coaching . . . He already knew he could coach. All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself. And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily  en route to his final triumph . Schwartz knew that people loved to suffer as long as the suffering made sense."

Initially, Henry's suffering takes a simple form -- his willingness to endure one punishing workout after another, day after day, season after season, in the pursuit of the perfect and a championship season.  But Henry's suffering soon ceases to make sense.  The failure to grip the ball just so, a quirky breeze from off shore and Henry throws the ball beyond the reach of the first baseman. It sails into the dug-out and strikes Henry's roommate, Owen, full in the face.

Owens survives the encounter, Henry barely.  His streak of error-less games vanishes as Henry is suddenly unable to throw the ball with accuracy or confidence.

Schwartz, Owen, Westish President Guert Affenlight and Guert's daughter, Pella, all undergo their own unique forms of suffering.  It is as if Henry's errant throw has unstitched the bonds that holds their lives together. Now, all that remains is to see if their suffering -- and they are suffering mightily -- can lead to triumph.

The Art of Fielding is baseball as a metaphor for life, but it would be wrong to dismiss it as only that. Harbach has written a book of rare generosity, insight and skill.  The characters are vivid and in the course of 500 pages we come to care for them deeply.  The narrative arc is as beautiful as a well-thrown baseball -- the novel ends as it begins with Schwartz and Henry together on the baseball diamond.

And the themes that emerge -- the value of suffering in our lives, the need to strive for perfection, the importance of friendship and love -- tell a story as eloquent and as complete as that most elusive no-hitter.

Book 109: Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie 

In Luka and the Fire of Life, Salman Rushdie joins the family of notable authors who have tried their hand at juvenile fiction.  

It is a clumsy and disappointing for such an accomplished writer.

Luka's father is dying.  The 12-year-old enters the Magic World to steal the fire of life, which will restore his father's health.

Rushdie's Magic World is a mish-mash of old gods, legends and myths that will be lost on most of the book's young readers.  In a futile effort to appeal to those same readers, Luka's quest is presented as a video game.  Soon after entering the Magic World, Luka discovers that he can accumulate hundreds of lives and that he can "save" stages of his progress.

That overlay -- of a video game -- feels as if Rushdie did not have confidence in his main story.  That lack of assurance is justified, but the author's effort to modernize the quest fails too.

1 comment:

  1. Glad to read such a glowing review for The Art of Fielding - I just won a copy of this book during Book Blogger Appreciation Week and wasn't sure what to think (other than "yay book!").

    Your description of what happened with Rushdie in that YA book sounds apt. I do not see him as a YA writer at all - wonder if his publicists pushed him into that, since the YA industry is far exceeding other genres in overall sales?

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