There should be a Biblical saying — For if a new novel, for which the publisher has paid an enormous amount of cash, lives up to its hype, all shall considered themselves blessed — and if that novel cometh from the Midwest, homeland to Floyd Dell and Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jim Harrison, then all shall be twice blessed.
This should apply to "The Art of Fielding," which Little Brown had much bruited about and whose hefty hardcover we can now hold in our hands. It's a baseball novel, meaning it's a novel from which one can extrapolate about all life on earth. It's a college novel and thus a coming of age novel. It's a novel about families, by birth and by life-choices, and a novel about how to live, how to love and how to die. It's a novel about how to read and how to write, and it's all in all the most delightful and serious first book of fiction that I have read in a while.
The loves, friendships, duties and betrayals, both of self and others, drive a clear and appealing plot. Will the baseball team forge its best season even as players, spectators, and sponsors alike, seem almost at any moment in the story about to go down in flames? By the last third of the book, the suspense the plot generates about human motive and fortune seems as relentless and engrossing as that of any thriller. The baseball motif highlights the characters in important ways. As catcher Mike Schwartz sees the sport, it is Homeric — quite unlike football, his other love. "Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball. You couldn't storm around, snorting and slapping people, the way Schwartz did while playing football. You stood and waited and tried to still your mind. When your moment came, you had to be ready, because if you f—ked up, everyone would know whose fault it was. What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?..."
Will Henry Skrimshander lead the team to its first winning season? Will Mike Schwartz find all his hopes fulfilled in this regard? Baseball matters desperately in this novel. But so does physical affection and, whether felt by a freshman or a college president, the unquenchable desire to know another human being in a deep and important way before the end of things. In this regard, the novel takes its place among a few charmed works of art that deal with the national pastime in the context of human yearning — books by superb writers such as Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Mark Harris. It also stands among the best school novels we have, from "This Side of Paradise" to "A Separate Peace."
Although, I'd like to think that this wonderful first novel will sing to readers who don't know, and don't even care about, the difference between a ball and a strike, and to readers who worked their way through evening college in an inner-city far from any idyllic Midwestern campus by a lake.
Alan Cheuse is a regular contributor to NPR's "All Things Considered" and his most recent novel is "Song of the Desert."
"The Art of Fielding"
By Chad Harbach
Little Brown, 514 pages, $25.99
"The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach
Baseball matters desperately in this novel. But so does physical affection and, whether felt by a freshman or a college president, the unquenchable desire to know another human being in a deep and important way.
Cover image of "The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach