I always have good intentions to catch World Series fever in the fall. It’s a serious hobby for the men- and boyfolk in my household, so I feel the need to develop some passion for the sport. A couple of Series seasons ago, I decided to read Chad Harbach’s highly praised baseball novel, The Art of Fielding. Yet I found the novel so engaging that I spent every night that October buried in it while tuning out the World Series in the background. I’d look up every once in a while to glance at the score, but I pretty much missed the series—again.
I did learn a few things about baseball from Harbach’s novel. I think I finally understand the essence of the shortstop, and why that position can make or break a team’s defense. But I enjoyed baseball in the novel more on a metaphorical level than a literal one. The Art of Fielding is a book about baseball, yes, but it’s also a book about drive and ambition, success and failure, and the things that make us humans get up in the morning and do what we do—whether that’s playing baseball, teaching, writing about literature, working in a school cafeteria, or whatever. In the words of one friend who recommended the novel to me last year, it’s about so much more than baseball.
Harbach does a great job of giving his contemporary novel a classic-American-lit foundation, with Herman Melville casting a long shadow over the book and over the campus of Westish College, where The Art of Fielding is set. Melville’s presence at the college is not without some tongue-in-cheek treatment from Harbach. After all, Westish’s Midwest location is nowhere close to the New England and New York locales where Melville spent his life and set his literary works. But, in the novel, the discovery of Melville’s brief visit to the school a century earlier provides an excellent branding opportunity for this backwater college. So, in the 1970s, Westish decides to build a legacy around Melville: a statue of him is erected in the center of campus, Westish’s athletic teams become the Harpooners, and the school’s colors are changed to blue and ecru to reflect nearby Lake Michigan, about which Melville was said to have proclaimed, “Humbled, I am, by the severe beauty of this Westish land, and these Great Lakes, America’s secret sinew of inward-collecting seas.” Even if you don’t know much about Melville, you probably can figure out that this small college on the lake would have paled in comparison to the high seas where Melville had a few adventures and then wrote about them. And so, through Melville’s perspective, made up as it is, we are meant to see Westish as a study in provincialism, an “inward-collecting” place where small-time students come to pursue small-time dreams.
Yet most of the novel’s main characters undertake quests that assume larger-than-life proportions. Like Ahab from Melville’s Moby Dick, each character is chasing a goal that becomes his or her white whale, single-mindedly pursued to the detriment of all else. Mike Schwartz becomes fixated not only on a tournament win for his Harpooners team, but also on getting into law school as a way out of his blue-collar background. For Pella Affenlight, the objective is contentment, which is more than an abstract concept for someone who’s gone through a failed marriage, clinical depression, and a strained relationship with her father. Pella’s father, Westish president Guert Affenlight, who is looking to fill a void in his lonely celibate life, develops an infatuation with student Owen Dunne and pursues him to the point of risking his own career. (This homoerotic relationship is right at home in a novel that pays tribute to American literary giants Melville, Whitman, and Emerson, all well known by now for featuring male-male friendship and love in their writing.)
For our central character, Henry Skrimshander, the goal is not the Major League as one might expect, but rather an error-free, perfect series of performances as a shortstop: “Maybe it wasn’t even baseball that he loved but only this idea of perfection, a perfectly simple life in which every move had meaning, and baseball was just the medium through which he could make that happen.” Henry’s drive for perfection, for a repetition of perfect throws in every practice and every game, gives him a sense of purpose:
The only life worth living was the unfree life, the life Schwartz had taught him, the life in which you were chained to your one true wish, the wish to be simple and perfect. Then the days were sky-blue spaces you moved through with ease. You made sacrifices and the sacrifices made sense. . . . No matter how hard you worked, you could never feel harried or hurried, because you were doing what you wanted and so one moment simply produced the next.
Unlike these four characters, Owen Dunne is the only one that remains unchained to “one true wish” and that doesn’t get caught up in an obsessive quest. He is at the center of it all as a kind of still point in a turning world, a zen master his teammates call “Buddha” because he seemingly stays above all the preoccupations, hopes, and disappointments that throw his friends’ lives out of balance. Though he’s an important member of the team, he even stays detached during baseball games, keeping to the dugout with his head in a book. Baseball isn’t as important as all that, he seems to say. Nothing is.
When one of Henry’s errant throws finds its way to Owen’s corner of the dugout, striking him in the face and knocking him unconscious, a whole course of events is set in motion that impacts the five main characters and their destinies. They are forced to rethink their white-whale obsessions and consider alternate courses for their intersecting futures. These characters—though I liked each one—don’t always choose the direction I expected them to take, and sometimes I wanted to shake some sense into them for turning down opportunities that any reasonable person would accept. But they don’t act like reasonable people. Neither did Captain Ahab. And neither do we, all of the time.
What these characters prove, and what I found so interesting about this baseball story, is that there’s a narrow margin between success and failure. Just as Guert Affenlight’s stroke of luck in discovering a hidden Melville lecture can launch him into a lifelong profession, a single bad throw can prevent Henry Skrimshander from fulfilling the promise of baseball stardom. To add insult to injury, Henry’s failures happen in public, in an arena for all to witness:
Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn’t matter how beautifully you performed sometimes, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren’t a painter or a writer—you didn’t work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn’t just your masterpieces that counted. What mattered as for any machine, was repeatability. Moments of inspiration were nothing compared to elimination of error.
Of course, becoming a machine isn’t a viable option for any human. We are all subject to error, no matter how many practice throws we attempt. But the novel does offer a satisfying end for these characters, for, where the group’s ambitions fail, their relationships succeed. They make friendships that go deeper than any record of wins and losses. In the final chapters, Guert Affenlight is the one who brings them together, in a strange way that I’ll let you discover on your own. Gathered around him, they let him teach them the ultimate moral of the story: “‘You told me once that a soul isn’t something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love.'”
Whether you’re a World Series watcher, a sometime sports fan, or just a flawed human trying to find some measure of success and satisfaction in life, I think you’ll enjoy The Art of Fielding.