The first review I read of Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding was in one of the men's magazines--Esquire or GQ--that I read every month. So positive was this review that it bordered on gushing. Despite this endorsement, I didn't scribble the title down in my To-Read notebook because The Art of Fielding is a book "about" baseball. And I? I am not a baseball fan. I am not a sports fan in general and I am not a baseball fan in particular. I am also not a fan of the genre of fiction (be it books, movies or short stories) that revolves around sports. Too many of these tend to devolve into the minutiae of the sports world itself rather than to be character-driven and too many others of these have plots that hinge on a single all-important game which our protagonist and his team can be counted upon to either win or lose, both outcomes resulting in a generally predictable set of consequences. Granted, the sports arena provides a convenient metaphor for all sorts of things--but because of its convenience, that metaphor has permeated not just fiction but our entire culture to some extent. Forgive the expression, but sports as a metaphor is played out.
So, I was a bit of a tough sell for a "baseball book." It did not go on my list with the first glowing review. Or the second. Or the fifth. But the book kept popping up again and again--it was on several "Best of the Year" lists for 2012 and, finally, it was a "Staff Pick" at the library. I could resist no longer.
The most important thing to know about this "baseball book" is that baseball functions primarily as a framework to bring this group of characters into one another's lives. The characters are so well drawn and the plot and subplots so engrossing and the pacing so perfect that it would've been a shame to miss the book because of a little baseball.
Henry Skrimshander is a shortstop of almost supernatural abilities who has just finished high school with no plans to attend college when he is recruited to a small Wisconsin college team--the Westish Harpooners--by Westish sophomore and self-appointed baseball scout, Mike Schwartz. Henry's decision to join the Harpooners changes his life and the lives of those around him in unpredictable ways.
The Art of Fielding is a book about ambition and single-sightedness, about competition and sportsmanship, about loyalty and betrayal, about actions and their unintended consequences, about the price of perfection and the ultimate folly of pursuing it. And, yes, it is a book about baseball. Baseball is more than a game in this book--as, to many fans and players, I would imagine, it's more than a game in real life.
Masked Mom's Two-Word Review: Home run.
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