Reviewed by Stuart Katz / JewishBaseballNews.com ~
The Art of Fielding (A Novel) by Chad Harbach.
Widely touted as a “must read,” “The Art of Fielding” is about baseball players and the people who love them. Set at the fictitious Midwestern, liberal-arts bastion known as Westish College, this debut novel by Chad Harbach centers on Henry Skrimshamer, a gifted shortstop who lives and breathes America’s pastime, and who devoutly studies a book also entitled “The Art of Fielding,” authored by a fictitious player named Aparicio Rodriguez — “the greatest defensive shortstop who ever lived.”
Henry is recruited to play ball for the Westish Harpooners by the team’s anchor and catcher, Mike Schwartz, and seems to be on a fast track to The Show until things inexplicably go awry. The cast of main characters includes Westish President Geurt Affenlight (a Melville aficionado), his daughter Pella, and Owen Dunne (Henry’s gay roommate and teammate). As much as this novel revolves around Henry and the game of baseball, it ultimately is more about the game of life, and the sometimes comical and always complicated relationships between and among these five characters. There is much to be learned from each of them, as they discover, not surprisingly, that there is more to life than fielding, hitting, and rounding the bases to reach home.
Mike Schwartz is the first character introduced in this novel. He is a baseball player and team leader. He also is Jewish and hopes to attend law school after college. These characteristics seem to shape who he is, what he hopes to become, and how he lives his life. Harbach offers up Schwartz’s Jewishness much the way he presents Dunne’s sexual orientation: merely as part of the DNA that forms the player. But it is hard not to wonder why Harbach created Mike Schwartz, instead of Mike Sullivan or Mike Salvati. Although Schwartz isn’t depicted as particularly religious or observant, his rejection of bourbon on Passover as chametz, and his ongoing Israel-versus-Palestine debate with a teammate are not to be glossed over. Nor is the current prominence and success of Jewish baseball players in the real world, which are referenced more than once in the novel.
Although its sexual themes may make it inappropriate for young readers, mature baseball fans should read this book. So should people who don’t necessarily like or know the game. Harbach presents a unique combination of compelling characters and baseball action. But “The Art of Fielding” is much more than a book about baseball, and that may surprise unprepared readers. Baseball and Westish College provide a context for what ultimately is a story about expectations – fulfilled and unfulfilled – and complex relationships. Harbach is a gifted and skilled writer – a five-tool player, if you will. He weaves together witty and ironic dialogue with literary references and particularly clever character names. The characters in this novel care deeply about one another, and readers likely will feel the same way.
Stuart M. Katz lives in Woodbridge and is an attorney with Cohen and Wolf in Bridgeport. For more of his reviews, plus news and stats on Jewish athletes, visit JewishBaseballNews.com.