The Art of Fielding

Before we begin, you need to understand one thing: The Art of Fielding is not a baseball story; The Art of Fielding is a love story. Yes, that’s right: a love story.

College Sophomore Mike Schwartz spots Henry Skrimshander–where else?–on a baseball field on a late summer afternoon. Schwartz has an eye for potential talent, and he recruits Henry to play baseball for his team at Westish College, a small, private liberal arts college in Wisconsin. Most of the novel covers the last half of Henry’s third year at Westish, where he’s poised to be recruited by the major leagues until an accident knocks everything off kilter, including Henry’s game.

I’m having the worst time trying to describe this book and how wonderful it is. I feel like I’m not really ready to write about it, but it has to go back to the library (three days overdue) and so it feels like now or never. On the one hand, I simply want to gush “It’s so good, you have to read it!” However, I know that’s probably not enough. So what did I love about it? It’s not a tricky book–it’s not clever. It tells a timeless story of love, the ways we’re interconnected, whether through love or friendship or what we sometimes even think of as destiny.

“Follow your passion”–those are common words of advice nowadays. Do what you love and everything will seem easy. Henry embodies that idea; he wants only to play baseball. He loves it and he lives for it. Mike Schwartz’s passions are Westish College and unlocking the potential talent in his teammates (especially Henry), but he’s convinced he should become a lawyer in order to really “be somebody.” Guert Affenlight loves his job as president of the college, which was his alma mater–he left a tenured teaching position at Harvard to return–but he finds himself unexpectedly in love and ready to risk everything, including his relationship with his daughter, Pella. Pella has run away from her older husband in San Francisco and is in search of who she wants to become, and part of that means being a daughter again.

The people in this book alternately strive for and fight against the people and things they love. It sounds so simple, but in truth it’s so complex, and The Art of Fielding (which gets it name from a zen-like rumination on baseball, The Art of Fielding, written by Henry’s favorite baseball player, Aparicio Rodriguez) shows their struggles with such humor, love, and care that for me, it was almost impossible to put down.

Another central figure in the book is Herman Melville. At some point in the past, Melville had been invited to Westish College to speak. As a student, Guert Affenlight finds a long-forgotten transcript of Melville’s speech to the students of Westish College that changes the course of his life. He becomes a Melville scholar, eventually writing the seminal (no pun intended, ha ha) work on Melville called The Sperm Squeezers. The college erects a statue of Melville, and in honor of Moby Dick, it changes the name of its sports teams to the Harpooners. The Melville reference is important because Henry is much like the whale in Moby Dick. His existence takes on a special significance for everyone around him, while all he wants to do is what comes most naturally to him: play baseball.

I can tell I am not doing it justice, but I’m afraid that right now I cannot do much better. As Jackie pointed out, The Art of Fielding is also a campus novel, but without the irony that seems to attend many campus novels. Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot to me seemed more a novel of pedantry and academia, for example; Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons debunks the idea that a life of the mind matters at all, even at our finest institutions. The Art of Fielding is mostly sincere in its portrayal of American college life. It reminds us that school, college, university–this was a place where many of us (thought we) were deciding who we wanted to be, where we were trying to find that passion–whether it was a person or a thing–that would stay with us the rest of our lives. I hope this book stays with me. I have a feeling it will.

Some passages:

Fifteen minutes to game time. Schwartz, still dizzy, hauled himself to his feet. He would need two quarts of Gatorade to get through the final game, then a coffee and a can of dip for the long midnight drive. But first he headed for the far dugout, where the kid was packing up his gear. He’d figure out what to say on the way over. All his life Schwartz had yearned to possess some single transcendent talent, some unique brilliance that the world would consent to call genius. Now that he’d seen that kind of talent up close, he couldn’t walk away.

Henry slipped through a cool aperture between two buildings and emerged on a bright, bustling scene. This wasn’t Lankton CC: this was college in a movie. The buildings matched–each four or five stories high and made of squat gray weather-beaten stone, with deep-set windows and peaked, gabled roofs. The bike racks and benches were freshly painted navy.

Baseball–what a boring game! One player threw the ball, another caught it, a third held a bat. Everyone else stood around. Affenlight looked about, bethinking his options. He had less than an hour. What he needed was a reason, an excuse, to circle over to the Milford side and thereby catch a glimpse of the person he was eager to glimpse. He scanned the visitors’ bleachers, and his eyes settled on two large, well-dressed men whose attitudes and accessories marked them as distinct from the other spectators. Affenlight, combining what he saw with what he’d lately heard, guessed that they must be professional scouts, here to see Harpooner shortstop Henry Skrimshander, a junior. Which seemed to afford the perfect excuse: he would pay his guests a cordial visit.

Affenlight found this hypothesis exciting, if dubiously constructed. Then he glanced at Aparicio, his hands folded mournfully in his lap, and his excitement curdled to embarrassment. Literature could turn you into an asshole; he’d learned that teaching grad-school seminars. It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties.

He wasn’t old but he looked it now, his arms limp at his sides, deep lines of worry scored into his forehead beneath his mussed solver-gray hair, his expression sand and beseeching. Why was the younger person always the prize, the older person always the striver? Ever since adolescence Pella had been gathering experience in the role of the younger person, the one clung-to, the beloved. That was the idiot hopefulness of humans, always to love what was unformed. Really it made no sense. What were the old hoping the young would become? Something other than old? It hadn’t happened yet. But the old kept trying.

The students’ mistakes lay ahead of them, were prospective and therefore glorious. His own lay in the past. They might have been glorious too, his own mistakes–at least, he would not change them for anyone else’s. He regretted only a single loss–those years he’d missed of Pella’s life, and the string of errors that led to a loss like that was so thick and knotted that he’d never found one end of the string, so that he could follow it in and up and around and figure out why. Perhaps he’d been too permissive and tolerant a parent, and thereby forced Pella to grow up too fast. Or perhaps he’d never been tolerant enough to accommodate  a girl pf Pella’s talents. Or perhaps he’d raised her perfectly, but every other parent in the world had miserably erred, and so Pella, precisely because of her perfect upbringing, had been forced to find her own way.

Book source: Library

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9 comments

  1. There are a few things that seem to be consistent in all the reviews I’ve read of this book. The first and foremost is everyone claiming that this isn’t a book about baseball! 😉 I am dubious about this because I compare it to the near universal love for the tv show Friday Night Lights, which everyone claims is not about football, but I’ve tried to watch several episdoes, so I can certainly say that for a show that is not about football, there is an awful lot of football happening there! That said, I still think I might try this out because it has garnered so much praise and also, if a book has to be about a sport, I’d probably prefer it to be baseball as it’s the one sport whose rules I know in their entirety. Also, I really do like novels set in university/college, so that appeals as well. Wonderful review!

  2. It’s a book on my list – everyone seems to be talking about it. Looking forward to reading it even more now that I’ve read your review!

  3. It’s interesting how many people say “Follow your passion.” I listened to a podcast recently and have heard a lot about a book that is out (whose title I don’t remember) that says pretty clearly – maybe don’t follow your passion, but do what you are good at. The example that comes up all the time is Rudy, who spent all his time and effort trying to play football for Notre Dame, even though he wasn’t good enough, and then just played in one game and that was the highlight of his life, when he should have spent his effort doing something that he was already good at. It was a really interesting way of turning the statement around and showing how sometimes, it would be good to let a dream go and be realistic. Sad, though!

  4. Steph, I see what you mean. I certainly didn’t mean to say that the book contains less baseball than you would expect–it doesn’t. But it’s only part of a whole, and the book itself is not about the sport or the triumphs of athleticism or a down-and-out college’s last hope. You may actually appreciate the baseball descriptions more than I did, though, because I have only the most basic knowledge of the game, and I find it rather dull because I’m not into following stats, etc. It really has wonderfully drawn characters, and their stories are the best part of the book.

  5. Corri, you never really know when everyone is raving about a book whether it’ll live up to the hype. In this case, I think this book will have a long life because the characters are great and it’s well done. I hope you enjoy it!

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