Amazing! Brilliant! are just two of the words I would use if I were writing this review for the NY Times or Chicago Tribune so why not use them here? I think I will. . .The Art of Fielding was a completely amazing story told by a brilliant writer - there I've used those words, that felt really good! Now, do not let the title scare you (ladies) that this is a book about baseball. . .
The Art of Fielding is as much a book about baseball as Moby Dick is a book about whaling, it is and it isn't. While sports is a definite theme in the book, the story offers so much more than just a take on the old ball game. I would describe this as a book about fielding life more than a ball as Chad Harbach puts into words the impact people and relationships have on lives, using baseball as the books anchor. Whether you are realizing your dreams or figuring out who you are, he captures the thoughts that are in your own heart and mind that can make or break you. Chad writes "Whatever was simple and useful remained. You improved little by little till the day it all became perfect and stayed that way. Forever." Which we all know is an impossibility; first nothing lasts forever and second perfection only survives in the mind of the perfectionist. And so in that simple sentence lies your story, the imperfections of life.
Imperfections that in this book touch on every emotion of the heart and mind, the conscious and sub-conscious; unraveling dreams and friendships, crossing the lines of commitment. Commitments made to a team and to yourself leaving you empty except to exist for nothing more than the act of breathing. Betrayal of your own accord, of who you are as a man, a leader, a father, a dreamer and a lover. Each character is so powerful in how they influence and learn from one another about themselves and as their lives evolve each moment of everyday, together, like a team getting ready to take the field.
Chad starts off with a lead into one of the main characters who is a naive, socially inept boy with an extreme talent for playing shortstop, Henry Skrimshander. When he is recruited to the shores of Lake Michigan to play baseball for the Harpooners at Westish College, the small town boy is out of his element in the quad but very much at home on the field. His recruiter and best friend, Mike Schwartz (Harpooner catcher and team captain) takes it upon himself to get the boy recruited and then develop him and his talent. A talent that ultimately leads to a major league recruitment for Henry and the college's first championship victory. But perfection or more aptly stated, Henry's own perception of perfection, gets in the way of his small town boy - big league dreams.
Throughout the book you encounter strong influences on Henry's life, his roommate for one, Owen Dunne who, like everyone else, takes a shine to Henry in spite of his own awkwardness. The college president Guert Affenlight a middle aged scholar that takes a shine to Owen, who up to this point in his life had thought of himself as a heterosexual. And Guert's once estranged daughter Pella who finds herself in the comforting surrounds of the Westish grounds and the arms of Schwartz and for a brief moment Skrimshander's if for nothing more than therapy, his and hers. There is a small circle of team mates who quickly become part of Henry's brigade as he coaches, cheers and comforts the team with his game time rally rants on and off the field. Forever at his side Schwartz, the almighty leader who plays with his heart and soul - he wears his Westish pride like a badge of honor.
But Mike has his own problems. A down on his luck kind of guy from a broken home who is deep down broken hearted because he knows the scouts aren't out to watch him play. So his own strife is a put upon perfection created by himself to be accepted to an Ivy league law school, none of which are accepting of his application, all of which makes him selfishly hate Henry and his dream come true fairy tale life. The life he would have never had (maybe) if it hadn't been for Mike. The friendship is strained and compounded by Pella, Pella a confused manic depressive who finds herself caught between them at one point. But doesn't fairy tale in some way imply perfection? And didn't I start out saying that perfection only lives in the mind of the perfectionist. . .so regardless of its ending, the question of how perfect it may be is yours to answer.
In Chad Harbach's read the end is a realization, a path forward - one that is reasonable, responsible and attainable for all of them. And together they set out to field whatever comes next.