The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This rating is really somewhere between two and three. I enjoyed it, there wasn't anything bad about it, but I also didn't think there was anything here that warrants the incredible reception it received.
There was a children's author named John R. Tunis, a former sportswriter who started writing novels about sports. "The Iron Duke" was the first of his books I read, one of the only novels I ever remember my father recommending or even expressing an opinion about. It was about track, and it helped that I was a runner. I went on from there to read many of his other novels, most of which were about baseball. They really were about baseball, and what you cared about was whether the team won, whether the protagonist did will or overcame whatever difficulty he was facing.
"The Art of Fielding" is like that, but for adults. That means there is swearing, drinking, sex, homosexuality, and a smattering of adult situations, but it's almost all plot: will Henry Skrimshander break the record for errorless games and land a major league contract? Will the team have a winning season and make it to the Nationals? Will the guy get the girl (or guy)?
What does the author do well? He writes pretty well about baseball. He avoids the cliche "tools of ignorance" even though one of the main characters is a catcher. He moves the story along and keeps the reader involved. He does dialogue pretty well.
On the other hand, he sometimes strains credulity. For instance, I have a hard time that even at a small college with a mediocre team the baseball coach would let one of his players spend all his time on the bench reading. Or for another, do we really believe the instant conversion of the heterosexual college dean merely at the sight of one beautiful baseball player? Or the obvious erudition, including fluency in Greek, of more than one of the jocks on the team? Or, to take a smaller example, that the name of Henry's hero, also a shortstop, is Aparicio Rodriguez? We know who Luis Aparicio is, but Aparicio is not a first name. And don't get me started (it would be a spoiler) on the final scene involving Dean Affenlight!
So overall I'm a bit puzzled. I like watching baseball. In fact, I'm watching the game right now, but I don't kid myself that I'm engaged in a serious intellectual pursuit while I'm watching. The book is like that: it's fine, and it's entertaining, but I really don't think it's anything more than that. And for the critics who decided this was the literary novel of the year, I really don't see it.
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