Transforming Characters

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

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This is an odd but compelling book. It covers so many bases (in the literary sense) that it’s hard to know where to start. So to the story. Mike Schwartz, a salt of the earth member of Westish college’s football and baseball teams, sees in shy Henry Skrimshander a pearl-in-the-rough baseball talent. He uses his influence, which is considerable, to have Henry recruited to the tiny, relatively poor liberal arts college to play shortstop. Henry is roomed with Owen Dunne, a gay member of the baseball team. As you might imagine, the team is an eccentric mix of talent and personalities, not unlike some professional ball clubs. The team slowly gels. In the meantime, Mike and Pella Affenlight, the school president’s daughter, become lovers. Guert Affenlight, the prez, a former flashy Harvard professor with a fascination for the work of Herman Melville and former ladies’ man, is drawn to Owen in – shall we say – a manner unbecoming to his station.

Harbach’s talent here is in making something coherent of these disparate characters – not a small challenge. He takes each into personal nadir, then brings each from those depths in unexpected ways that in the end make sense. They make sense, not in personal ways, but as a collective – much the same way a successful baseball team gels. In this way each becomes transformed into a person one could hardly have anticipated.

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Baseball, then, is more than a backdrop – it’s a conveyance for the ways people in this modern era change and grow through interaction. It’s no coincidence, I think, that Harbach has this occur at a college, the traditional place of transformation for young minds. That Guert Affenlight, in his sixties, is changing, too, makes the statement even stronger, perhaps telling us that age and tradition aren’t the staid old things they used to be.

There are many more nuances to this book, but this will give you the idea. The only flaw I note in this book – and it’s a relatively small, subtle one – is that the author seems to have a hard time finding a way to end the story. Still, Harbach is a literary talent, and I can only look forward to more such compelling, eminently readable books from him.


My rating: 17 of 20 stars



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