In 1973, Steve Blass, the ace pitcher for the World Series winning Pittsburgh Pirates, found himself suddenly and inexplicably unable to throw a baseball accurately. He was in perfect health, and his arm was uninjured. His difficulties were not physical, but psychological. It wasn’t a matter of courage, or cowardice. He was simply completely unable to do something that he had previously been as good at as anyone in the world. The best article about Blass and his baffling condition appeared in the New Yorker in 1975, written by the great Roger Angell; it was subsequently anthologized in at least two of Angell’s published compilations. Although previously unknown in baseball history, in the forty years since Blass retired, his odd affliction, ‘Steve Blass’ disease,’ subsequently afflicted another pitcher, Rich Ankiel, two second basemen, Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch, and catcher Mackey Sasser. Sax and Knoblauch found themselves incapable of making routine throws to the first baseman; Sasser became unable to toss the ball back to the pitcher between pitches.
And now Henry Skrimshander. Chad Harbach’s first novel, The Art of Fielding, is about a preternaturally talented young shortstop, suddenly afflicted with Blass’ weird syndrome. But it’s not just a novel about baseball, or even primarily a novel about baseball. Henry suddenly can’t make routine throws to first, not because he’s been physically disabled, but because he overthinks it, over-analyses the problem, which leads to a crisis of confidence. And where else would you set a novel about crises of confidence and paralysis-through-over-analysis but in a modern college?
Harbach introduces us to the world of Westish College, a small midwestern 4-year liberal arts school, with high-ish academic standards, somewhat decaying infrastructure, and a really bad baseball team. And in this world lives Mike Schwartz, literate, well-read, tough, inspirational, a man’s man, who essentially wills the Westish Harpooners (the entire school worships Melville) to improve athletically. Schwartz is, above all, Henry Skrimshander’s best friend, his mentor, his personal trainer, his coach and conscience and motivator and his captain-my-captain. And Schwartz has given so much of himself to build up Henry he has begun to wonder who he is, and what he will do with the rest of his life.
The novel also focuses on three other extraordinary characters. First is Owen, Henry’s roommate; brilliant, gay, kind, utterly sure about himself and who he is, a man who, when a coach yells at him, is neither offended nor motivated by it, but sort of delighted–‘look, I get to study apoplectic rage!’ How very interesting!’ He’s also an athlete; a pretty doggone good hitter, though one who, between at bats, reads in the dugout. Harbach could write an entire novel about just Owen, and I’d read it. Equally compelling is Guert Affenlight, the Westish college president, a once-fashionable young literary scholar, now slowly decaying as an administrator; no longer a teacher or published scholar, but a generous and charismatic soul. And finally his daughter, Pella, a bright and beautiful and deeply unsure of herself young woman, who has moved home to escape a terrible marriage, and who has found personal fulfillment working as a dishwasher in a college cafeteria.
Affenlight is infatuated with Owen, and they finally do have an odd but convincing romance. Pella and Schwartz also hook up, and although they’re good for each other, they also fight, mostly over Henry. And Henry himself is . . . a sage, a mystic, a ninja turned ronin, a priest without vocation. A lost and despairing artist who has lost his muse.
I’m making the novel sound morose or gloomy. It’s anything but. Pella’s marriage is terrible, but we do meet her husband, and he’s a richly comedic creation. The writing throughout is . . . alive. The characters are funny and smart and rich and foolish and capable and incapable and eloquent and tongue-tied. They’re people.
But it’s also smart. Even profound. There’s this, for example:
‘1973,’ thought Affenlight. In the public imagination, it was as fraught a year as you could name: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, withdrawal from Vietnam. Gravity’s Rainbow. Was it also the year that Prufrockian paralysis went mainstream–the year it entered baseball? It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation–the Modernists of the First World War–would take awhile to reveal itself throughout the population. And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the real of utmost confidence in same–the world of professional sport. In fact, that might make for a workable definition of the postmodernist era: an era where even the athletes were anguished Modernists. In which case, the American postmodern period began in spring 1973, when a pitcher named Steve Blass lost his aim.
Do I dare, and do I dare?
Affenlight found this hypothesis exciting, if dubiously constructed.
Thesis, followed by a cheeky antithesis. The rest of the novel is the synthesis; it is both about a radical loss of self-confidence, and the devastation wrought by it, as well as rebirth and redemption.
Or this: pardon the ellipses.
The thing to do, really was to wash the dishes. In fact, she was feeling a strong desire to wash the dishes. . . . the ones near the bottom were disgusting, the plates covered with water-softened crusts of food, the glasses scummed with white bacterial froth, but this only increased her desire to become the conqueror of so much filth. . . an objection crossed her mind. What would Mike think? It was a nice gesture, to do someone’s dishes, but it could also be construed as an admonishment . . . even if she and Mike had been dating for months, unprovoked dishwashing might be considered strange. But the dishes weren’t hers and she and Mike weren’t dating. They hadn’t even kissed. Therefore, the doing of dishes could only be weird, neurotic, invasive. And Mike would shrug and never call her again. She looked down at the white bubbles. Steam rose off the water. . . she really really really wanted to do those dishes.
And so maybe I picked the most pretentious literary paragraph in the novel, and followed it by the weirdest internal monologue paragraph. Plus it’s about baseball. Meh. You’re thinking that, possibly. Meh.
Darn it. I’ve blown it already. And yet, it’s so so good.
One more, then:
By the time they finished, Owen had said ‘There, finally’ to two pairs of jeans, two shirts and two sweaters. A modest stack, but Henry added up the price tags in his mind, and it was more than he had in the bank. “Do I really need two?” he said? “One’s a good start.”
“Two,” said Jason.
“Um.” Henry frowned at the clothes. “Mmmm. .”
“Oh!” Owen slapped himself on the forehead. “Did I forget to mention? I have a gift card at this establishment. And I have to use it right away. Lest it expire.” He reached for the clothes in Henry’s hand. “Here.”
“But it’s yours,” Henry protested. “You should spend it on yourself.”
“Certainly not,” Owen said. “I would never shop here.”
So: this: This is a novel in which every plot turn and incident is surprising, and yet inevitable. That is to say, everything that happens flows convincingly from the things that happened earlier, but they also catch us unawares. It’s also a novel in which the dialogue is literate but persuasive; where the characters talk like the really smart people they are, except for the stupider ones.
I want badly for you to pick up this novel, buy it on Kindle or walk into Barnes and Noble or check it out at your local library; read it! in other words. So I won’t spoil the plot for you. But as you read it, you will very much want things to work out well for characters you’ve grown to love, and they do, and the last two chapters are splendid and right and fulfilling. But it’s a twisty road getting there. So persevere.
And what if you don’t like baseball? I wondered about this. I’m fully aware that this novel did not exactly present me with acceptance-and-enjoyment challenges. I love the game of baseball, though I never played it well, (certainly not as well as Henry does), and I admire the way this author gets every baseball detail exactly and exquisitely right, and boy does that contribute to my engagement with this text. And maybe, possibly, some of you don’t like baseball as much as I do. Or (shudder) at all.
Then let me recommend it to you all the more. Because it’s a terrific read, a marvelous first novel from a guy who I sort of desperately hope writes more of them. It’s funny and smart and real and profound.
I just really liked it a lot. I read it until late last night, and work early and finished it this morning, and couldn’t wait to tell someone, everyone, that it’s really good and that you should read it. So. It’s really good and you should read it. That’s The Art of Fielding. By Chad Harbach. Click this link to buy your own copy. It’s about baseball, and it’s about life, and it’s sad and joyful and funny and sad. But enough. No more overselling. You’ll get it, or you won’t. Just, if you don’t, you’re missing out big time.