Posted by Justine Solomons on 22 January 2012, in Recommendations
The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach
There's been a lot of publicity surrounding this book, notably reports of a $650,000 advance and comparisons to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. I'd seen a lot of five star reviews and heard radio broadcasters talk about it being a safe book one to buy your father, brother, sister or aunt, which perhaps stops it being a great book like the ones it's been compared to.
The story funds Henry Skirmshander a weedy but faultless backstop overlooked by all colleges for his diminutive size but then discovered by Mike Schwatz a ambitious sports jock at Westish College, who arranges a scholarship for Henry, convinced that Henry has the ability to save the failing Westish baseball team. Henry shares a room with 'gay mulatto' genius Owen Dunne, who is also on the team. Predicatably Henry is driven hard by Mike and the team suddenly starts to find glory. Much to the delight of the college president, confirmed bachelor and Melville scholar Guert Affenligh Westish College is lifted from it's provincial status. Mike is even rewarded with a girlfriend when Guert's daughter Pella runs away from a failing marriage to visit Westish and falls for Shwartz. All is going well until Henry's faultless record is ruined by a foul throw that results in an injury to Owen. This leads to a crisis in Henry's life and the start of an affair between Guert and Owen.
This book is about passion, a monomaniacal desire to succeed and the different types of love one person can feel for another. As Henry observes there is a place for the kind of love that Mike feels for Pella, that Guert feels for Owen but few appropriate places for him to express the kind of love that he feels for his mentor Mike, perhaps it is only on a sports field that that kind of love can be expressed.
The Art of Fielding felt like a very familiar book, comparisons with Ahab's desire to kill the whale in Moby Dick loom large, there is a sense that The Corrections is a reference point as is Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, but it also owes quite a bit to the recent film Moneyball. The structure of the book is tied to the fate of the Westish baseball team and its inevitable denouement is pitched against the final ball in the last game and the actions of our hero Henry. I enjoyed this book, despite it's 515 pages it was an easy read, light even, and despite scenes of male gay sex is indeed a safe book, perhaps due to it's formulaic structure. Worth reading, and it will sell well so probably deserves its $650,000 advance but not a great great book in the way that The Corrections, A Prayer for Owen Meany or Moby Dick was, it would be a good film though, like Moneyball was. which will add further to Chad Harbach's coffers no doubt.
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