There’s a long tradition of writing about sport that tries to be more than writing about sport. Journalism, it seems, is not enough. The events of a game and the constraints of its rules become raw materials for allegory. Much fuss has been made in recent years about the rise of nonfiction and its power over the popular imagination—but when it comes to sport, the lure of myth remains strong.
Still, writers go there at their peril, because myth-making is not easy. It’s hard to look at The Sun Also Rises in 2013 without finding the descriptions of boxing and bullfighting very strained, often embarrassingly so, with their creaky symbolism and dubious grandiosity. Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to read about the baseball great Ted Williams without bumping into John Updike’s famous line describing Williams’ notorious aloofness, most dramatically in evidence when he hit a home run in the final at bat of his career and then refused to acknowledge an ovation. “Gods do not answer letters,” Updike wrote. A good line, yes—but if anyone bothers to read the entire essay (“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” 1960), it’s shocking how bad much of it is, how a writer as talented as Updike could succumb to so many clichés, so much slobbering purple prose. In a typical example, a groundskeeper is compared to a “mushroom gatherer seen in Wordsworthian perspective on the verge of a cliff.” Additional references to Jason, Achilles, Nestor, Hamlet, Thomas Aquinas, Donatello and Leonardo are enlisted to help the poor reader to understand the ballgame.
None of this is Chad Harbach’s fault and, to his credit, for substantial portions of The Art of Fielding (Back Bay Books, 544 pages) he is astute enough to leaven this self-conscious literary register—which he embraces entirely—with humor. The novel tells the story of Henry Skrimshander, a gifted young shortstop playing at a small Midwestern college. Under the tutelage of Mike Schwartz, a teammate who acts much older than his years, Henry seems destined for great things. He also learns about life from his gay roommate, Owen Dunne, and from Pella, the troubled daughter of the college president.
At heart, the book is about the complicated nature of performance, perhaps the performance of genius; Henry Skrimshander is Exhibit A in a much larger conversation. Exactly mid-way through the story, the catcher Schwartz spells it out:
“…this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.
Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn’t matter how beautifully you performed sometimes, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren’t a painter or a writer—you didn’t work in private or get to discard your mistakes, and it wasn’t just your masterpieces that counted. What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability. Moments of inspiration were nothing compared to elimination of error. The scouts cared little for Henry’s superhuman grace; insofar as they cared they were suckered-in aesthetes and shitty scouts. Can you perform on demand, like a car, a furnace, a gun? Can you make that throw one hundred times out of a hundred? If it can’t be a hundred, it had better be ninety-nine.”
Such asides are further informed by Henry’s attachment to a book called The Art of Fielding by a fictional baseball great named Aparicio Rodriguez (a mash-up of Luis Aparicio, Ozzie Smith and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). The volume is full of koan-like utterances such as “The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond” or “Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does.” To this mix, add a heavy dose of Melville who, according to one of the conceits of the novel, made a trip to Wisconsin during his final, obscure period as a customs inspector.
To say that this is ponderous would be beside the point, because it is precisely the point! A better question might be: does the novel wear it well?
In the early stages, a wry tone and a good eye for comic detail help carry the weight. Henry’s situation is intriguing and much of the writing about baseball is quite good. Harbach captures the nervy, tantalizing quality of the game, how its pleasures are so often bound up with frustrations. The emphasis on fielding, as compared to the superficially more glamorous achievements of hitting or pitching, is central to this success.
But as the story becomes more plot-driven, and the question of Henry’s career prospects or his team’s fortunes take over the narrative, the philosophical musings began to cloy, and the manifest unworldliness of the novel, initially one of its charms, turns out to be a problem.
For instance, in regard to sex. It’s hard to write well about sex, and some writers choose (not always wrongly) to avoid the subject, in order to preempt the question. But if sex figures in the plot (as it does here), it deserves more attention. It’s rare to use the word “prissy” anymore, but unfortunately that is the term that springs to mind. (Of course, a certain old-boy squeamishness about sex can itself be a highly sexualized pose, as in the case of the novel’s character Guert Affenlight, but it won’t work for the story as a whole, in a campus novel full of restless young people.) In a similar fashion, questions of class and money are largely deprived of their sting, as if too “icky” for words.
By the end, the novel settles for the crudely formulaic. The first climax hinges on Who Will Win the Big Game? The reader is invited to believe that Henry’s team, the Harpooners, is something akin to the crew of the Pequod in Moby-Dick, and the result of the baseball game is somehow cosmic. Ridiculousness is followed by bathos: a burial at sea with more evocations of Melville and the story of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s disinterment of his first wife. The actions of a handful of 21st century American college students assert their mythic status.
The Art of Fielding is literary fiction—indeed, it never stops telling you so. But in the process, unfortunately, it seems to forget why.
Charles Holdefer is author of Back in the Game (2012), The Contractor (2007) and other novels.