By September 6, 2012 1 Comments Read More →

A Field of Dreams, but with Few Errors

Chad Harbach’s debut, The Art of Fielding, was one of the big novels of last year and is likely to be a frequent choice for book groups now that it’s out in paper. Misha has written about this one on Book Group Buzz before (here), but it’s a title worth revisiting.

In Harbach’s novel, The Art of Fielding is a book by Aparicio Rodriguez, a shortstop whose zen approach to playing the field makes him the idol of protagonist, Henry Skrimshander, a small town kid who doesn’t do much well in life but play shortstop like some kind of gloved savant. Although he’s puny and can’t hit, Henry’s skill is recognized by Mike Schwartz, a musclebound inner city Chicago kid who also reads Roman literature and has made himself as the mentor of other players at Westish College, a liberal arts school with mediocre sports teams that are on the rise thanks to Schwartz’s magnetism and hard-driving influence.  With Henry as his protege, fortunes begin to turn for the Westish baseball team.

Henry’s unlikely roommate and teammate is Owen Dunne, a fastidious, biracial, gay literary genius (there’s a lot of literary genius in this novel). Owen catches the eye of the college president, Guert Affenlight, a sixty-year old literary scholar who gladly jumped the academic fast track to return to his alma mater as an administrator. Now he’s surprised to be experiencing his first homosexual attraction to a much younger man (even though his most famous piece of scholarship is about the hearty relations of men in Melville novels). The final major character is Pella, Affenlight’s daughter, who retreats to Westish after leaving her husband, a much older man (and a professor himself.) Pella starts a fling with Schwartz, whose attention is devoted to Henry, and thus a rather complicated love hexagon is created.

Harbach’s genius is for building empathy for these rather unlikely characters, many of whom are rather self-absorbed, and making Westish, his romanticized liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere, a very believable place. He draws the reader into this odd little community with skill, and you’ll be dying to find out what happens, how each of these characters will field all the real and metaphoric baseballs that life bats their way. Although I’m a fan and loved the baseball scenes in this book, you can read it without understanding the game. You might gain more appreciation for the languid, old-fashioned sport while reading The Art of Fielding, or grow curious about Affenlight’s beloved Moby Dick, but neither is the ultimate point. In the end, what’s most powerful about this novel is its ability to show how even those who seem focused and successful on the surface can spiritually adrift, or to borrow a word from Melville and the password from Affenlight’s computer, “landless.”

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

1 Comment on "A Field of Dreams, but with Few Errors"

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  1. kaitestover@kclibrary.org' Kaite Stover says:

    As good as this book is in print, the audio is sensational. Narrator Holter Graham has different voices for every character and has really captured the emotional essence of each one. The dry humor that might be easy to miss on the printed page does not escape a listener.

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