Yes, I do love baseball. So I'm sure I would have enjoyed Chad Harbach's first novel The Art of the Fielding anytime of year, but it is especially enjoyable to be reading it during the World Series. Last night I watched Texas Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus make a play that Harbach's hero Henry Skrimshander would surely have admired.
“The Art of the Fielding” is also the name of the dog-eared book that Henry studies and reveres. Written by a Hall of Fame shortstop named Aparicio Rodriguez, the books dispenses wisdom such as “The shortstop is a source of stillness in the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond”. And that pretty well defines Henry, a freakishly talented and graceful shortstop . His arrival on the baseball team at a small Wisconsin college called Westish propels the Harpooners, so named because Melville briefly visited the school on a book tour, from mediocrity to improbable success. Henry and his best friend, catcher and team captain Mike Schwartz, form a powerful alliance of hard work, loyalty and dedication to baseball, generously sprinkled with the literary references that Mike supplies for every occasion.
Harbach clearly loves baseball and I hope that even non-fans will appreciate his ability to describe the beauty and the grit of a baseball game. But this book is not just the baseball equivalent of “Hoosiers”. He is tackling big topics – friendship, failure and redemption, first loves (both gay and straight), errors made both on and off the field. It's about coming of age, and there's a little Ahab in each of the characters as they deal with their own versions of the elusive white whale.
PS Harbach was no doubt tipping his hat to Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio with the first name of his fictional author, and I guess the last name could be an homage to the many players with the last name of Rodriguez. But I prefer to believe he was thinking of hardworking catcher Pudge (much like Mike Schwartz) rather than pretty-boy A-Rod.