First published on 1 Feb 2012. Updated on 3 Feb 2012.
Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding was famous even before anyone had laid eyes on the manuscript. Thanks to a massive advance (somewhere in the mid-six-figures), the n+1 editor’s coming-of-age story, about a college baseball team in a small Wisconsin town, instantly became the most anticipated novel of the year.
Incredibly, The Art of Fielding lives up to the hype. The narrative orbits around prodigiously gifted, rail-thin shortstop Henry Skrimshander, who suffers a Rick Ankiel-like meltdown, but as with all great novels, it’s about so much more. Skrimshander isn’t alone in being affected by the loss of his prowess; it is felt by everyone in the small community built around the Westish College Harpooners, including the never-say-die team captain, Mike Schwartz; the philosopher-poet in left field, Owen Dunne; and school president Guert Affenlight and his whip-smart but common-sense-impaired daughter, Pella. As the narrative turns toward the season’s all-important final game, Harbach’s prose is considered, clean and pastoral, and he makes it easy to root for each of his characters.
The Art of Fielding is a decidedly American story, impeccably told. Skrimshander’s pride, his struggle to regain his confidence and his dreams of a second act will resonate with baseball fans, readers of Franzen-style family dramas and anyone drawn to smart, funny, engaging writing. Admittedly, as a young male from the Midwest with some baseball in his past, this novel came right down the middle of my strike zone. But as The Art of Fielding is such a rich and occasionally heartbreaking experience, others will not only realise where their strike zone is, but they’ll let Harbach paint the corners for them.
The Art of Fielding HarperCollins, published on Tue 4 Oct, RRP $29.99