Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding.NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2011.

“Baseball – what a boring game! One player threw the ball, another caught it, a third held a bat. Everyone else stood around.”

Chad Harbach’s debut novel shares its title with a guide to playing baseball, which includes meditative observations on the art of life itself.

It’s a book-within-a-book; it’s a theme-within-a-theme. For Chad Harbach’s novel is about baseball, but it’s about life, too.

So if you’ve already decided that this novel isn’t for you because you’re not into baseball, you might have to think again.

My experience of baseball is limited to watching my grandmother watch the games; this normally-well-behaved senior citizen would holler and root when a game was on, make raucous comments about the way her favourite players’ uniforms fit, and broadcast the gossip she had read about their personal lives.

See, even then, it wasn’t really much about the game. Not for me, anyway. But my grandmother’s hobby led to my watching a lot of televised games and baseball-themed films, without inspiring any love of the sport in me. And so I was prepared for — but not enthused about — this debut novel.

Which is not to say that I couldn’t appreciate the magic of a brief scene like this one:

“But when the game’s second batter lofted a blooper down the left-field line, Henry turned his back to the infield and took off, unable to see the ball but guessing its landing point based on how it had come off the bat. Nobody else was going to get there; it was up to him. He stretched out his glove as he bellyflopped on the grass, lifted his eyes just in time to see the ball drop in. Even the opposing fans cheered.”

Why did the opposing fans cheer? Why did even I cheer? Because there was something just so amazing, beautiful even, about that moment, the collision of intuition and skill. Like proverbial stars aligning.

And those would be the stars over the lake at Westish Michigan College. And I do like campus novels, and Westish’s re-branding (it’s now all about Melville, not maple trees and scenic views) lends it a particularly bookish air.

There is general bookishness:

“When he’d exhausted the American nineteenth century, he expanded his reach. By absorbing so many books he was trying to purge his own failure as a writer. It wasn’t working, but he feared what would happen if he stopped.”

And there is peculiarly-Melville bookishness:

“Mike, looking happier than Pella had yet seen him, roamed the room, browsing the endless shelves, until he found The Book itself – the oversize, hand-set, Arion Press Moby-Dick that her dad had bought for a thousand dollars in 1985 and was now worth thirty times more.”

Academics play out alongside sports in this novel because the team of characters isn’t comprised solely of baseball players.

Rooting the academic side of the narrative are the Affenlights, the father who is the president and a well-known Melville scholar, and the daughter who wants to pick up her studies where she left off to marry an older man four years ago.

But even the ball-players read. Or, at least, they like people who read. Or, aren’t unkind to them.

“He didn’t like to talk during Professor Eglantine’s class, not because he’d get in any trouble but because Professor Eglantine seemed as sensitive as a skinned knee, she frequently cried during class at the beauty of various poems, and Henry worried about disappointing her.”

I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times where I leafed ahead, to see how long the game talk was going to last. Okay, three times. But my edition of this novel is 724 pages: that’s not a bad average. Even for someone who doesn’t wholly understand stats. And each time I was still able to keep my head in the game.

So, yes, there is a lot of baseball in this novel, but even beyond keeping score and wanting to see the outcome of a certain game, some of it was surprisingly interesting.

For instance, I didn’t know this:

“Haircuts threw off a ballplayer’s equilibrium, because they subtly altered the weight and aerodynamicity of his head. It took, according to Coach Cox, two days to adjust. This posed a problem for Starblind, whose extreme sensitivity to the smallest fluctuations in his own attractiveness led to frequent emergency visits to his stylist.”

(I could have posted this without those last two quotes, but I wanted to give glimpses of the matter-of-fact bits of poetry like the skinned-knee simile, and the quiet and slightly-wordy humour in describing Starblind’s preoccupation.)

And, anyway, like I said before, it’s not all about baseball, but life too.

“So what’s it like to be best?”
Henry shrugged. “There’s always somebody better.”
“That’s not what Mike says. He says you’re the top – what is it, shortsop? – in the entire country.”
Henry thought about it for a moment. “It doesn’t feel like much,” he said. “You really only notice when you screw up.”
Pella nodded, finished chewing. “I know what you mean.”

The thing about fielding is that you’re not always going to catch the ball. And what happens what you don’t.

Whether you literally drop a ball or whether you divorce or flunk out or disappoint someone you love: most of life is about making-do when things don’t go the way that you hoped.

That’s where the characters are in Chad Harbach’s debut: not out standing in the field playing a game, but out living their lives and wishing it didn’t feel like people were keeping score.

“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.”

So there you have it: The Art of Fielding is a novel about baseball. And it isn’t.

It’s a novel about quintessentially American things (campus life, bigger-and-better real estate, on-the-road games); and it has some surprising elements (not every student is an upper-class white boy, the most romantic relationship in the book is between two men, Melville actually seems cool).

“Schwartz knew that people loved to suffer, as long as the suffering made sense.”

So even if you’ve decided that reading a book about baseball would be all-about-suffering, you might just find that reading The Art of Fielding makes sense.

After all, I haven’t read Moby-Dick but, from what I’ve heard, it’s all about the whale, and not at all about the whale.

PS I can’t resist including this quote, rooted in that romantic relationship I mentioned: “Reading aloud was already borderline intimate, one voice, two pairs of ears, well-shaped words…”