First published on 29 Feb 2012. Updated on 29 Feb 2012.
Be grateful you’re reading a review of this novel in Singapore, where you may just have escaped the media hype –Vanity Fair even published an e-book on the making of The Art of Fielding – and a loud backlash from those who felt Chad Harbach’s debut didn’t live up to its billing.
The story is to a certain extent about baseball, but don’t let that put you off. Really, it’s a tale about errors – which are punctiliously (and cruelly) logged in official baseball statistics – and how mistakes on and off the diamond disrupt the lives of five people at Westish College. The most prominent is small-town boy Henry Skrimshander, whose gift for fielding and avoiding cock-ups has led to his glove being nicknamed ‘Zero’. The prodigious sportsman finds his mental wellbeing in tatters when a freak gust of wind ends a streak of mistake-free games, and puts roommate and fellow Westish Harpooners player Owen into hospital. The chain of events opens up our carefully drawn main cast to various kinds of love: straight, gay, platonic, family and, of course, the love of the game.
So, a baseball-set love story? Sort of, but it’s not that simple. The Art of Fielding is also a study in depression as well as a tale of searching for spiritual peace. And if you’ve ever come across New York’s hipper-than-thou n+1 magazine – of which Harbach is a founder – you won’t be surprised to find the story shot through with smart literary references: Herman Melville looms particularly large, from the name of the team to Henry’s pursuit of his own metaphorical white whale when he starts to overthink rather than trust his instincts.
Detractors or not, my instinct is that this utterly readable book is essential.
Available for $20 at opentrolley.com.sg.