Char Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, has the look and feel of a book written by a much more experienced author. Harbach’s freshman novel covers the collegiate whirlwind that engulfs a group of unlikely friends. The book is engaging, fun and incredibly well written from the get go. There are very few books that capture the life of a private liberal arts student quite as well as this one. As an alumnus of Washington College, a school of 1300 nestled on the banks of the Chester River, I was carried swiftly back to my collegiate days.
The title of the book may trick you into the expectation that it is about baseball. Or fielding baseballs. Now don’t get me wrong, it is. The specificity of terms used in Harbach’s description of the ins and outs of the world of baseball are extraordinary. You would think that he spent his whole life on the diamond given the fact that he never once makes a descriptive error. The baseball piece of this book was flawless. Left nothing to be desired. A home run.
But this novel is not about baseball. It is a book about friends, and struggles, and culture. It provides insight into the ultra cognitive world of a perfect middle infielder. It provides a glimpse through the eyes of a player coach, the type that sacrifices his own future for that of another. It gives way to the feeling of young love, and describes them all in a detail consistent with Harbach’s descriptions of the whimsical world of baseball.
Henry Skrimshander, an unlikely hero of heroes with a gold glove and a rocket for an arm, turns up at Westish College. This little known ballplayer, recruited to save the Westish Harpooners’ baseball squad was recruited by Mike Schwartz, a Sophomore catcher, and team leader. Skrimshander comes out of the gates hot, landing the starting role as a Freshperson (Harbach’s version of Freshman) and leading the team in all offensive and defensive categories. Enter Pella and President Affenlight, a unique father daughter duo that permeates the novel with a depth not often seen. And finally, Owen, Henry’s gay roommate/teammate who happens to catch a certain school official’s eye.
The story chronicles the ins and outs of a unique ball player with unique friends. The characters weave themselves in and out of familiar bouts with self-confidence and collegiate life and love. If you love baseball, literature, or small town America, don’t miss this book. It is a fantastic read for the beach, couch, office, anywhere really.
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