Being British, I know virtually nothing about baseball. What I do know, I learnt from Charlie Brown in the Peanuts comic strip, meaning that in fact, I probably know even less than I think I do about what is probably the most American of sports. Happily, as far as I can tell, this did not really hinder my enjoyment of ‘The Art of Fielding’ by Chad Harbach. It does feature a lot of baseball especially in the first few chapters and some other passages which I admit were kind of lost on me. But the book as a whole is more about relationships which is something anyone can identify with (baseball fan or not) and the college experience which most people can identify with (American or not).
The book features a great cast of well-drawn characters which take the reader in unexpected directions: there’s Henry Skrimshander the baseball prodigy, his roommate Owen Dunne, his mentor Mike Schwartz, college president Guert Affenlight and his daughter Pella. However, I did think that some of the general metaphors of the novel were quite predictable and formulaic but then I can’t think of any sports writing that would really work without those sorts of clichés.
Comparisons with Jonathan Franzen’s work are inevitable. Like ‘Freedom’ and ‘The Corrections’, ‘The Art of Fielding’ is seen as a contender for the 21st century Great American Novel. For me, ‘The Art of Fielding’ was not as substantial or satirical as the work of Franzen or Philip Roth, for example. I did however find it easier and, dare I say it, more enjoyable to read than ‘The Corrections’ which was a book I thought was a bit too pleased with itself. I don’t think everyone would agree with that though…
‘The Art of Fielding’ is not quite a Great American Novel but it is a Very Good one. I’ll admit that it hasn’t exactly converted me to baseball but it is probably more fun to read than, say, a book about a golf pro.