Football is the quintessential American sport. Two disciplined armies meet out on an open field. Highly trained men in uniform wallop the enemy, denying them ground. Our super soldiers bash their brains in—and sometimes break their necks—for our entertainment. And we cheer. Because who doesn’t love a proxy war? It’s tribal. Downright primal. Are you entertained?!
*checks notes* Pardon. Apparently, baseball is America’s game. A sport that considers the no-hitter, a game in which absolutely nothing happens, as the pinnacle of the art. A sport that doesn’t honor plays but shames errors by counting them on the scoreboard for all to see. (Did I mention I had to watch all three of my brothers play Little League?)
Through the precision sport of baseball, The Art of Fielding explores the pursuit of perfection and the inevitable agony of falling short. The four point-of-view characters—a college shortstop and his teammate/mentor, the college president and his privileged daughter—strive to reach their potential over the course of a baseball season. Whether they do or not is a matter of perspective.
The scene is Westish College, a not-that-special liberal arts school in northeastern Wisconsin, more or less present day (2011). Baseball and omnipresent Herman Melville form the negative space of the narrative, shaping the paths of the main characters. Shortstop Henry is The Natural with the golden arm, who has no identity beyond the game. His teammate Schwartz—a two-sport jock with the knees of a geriatric patient—pushes Henry and the other Westish Harpooners (Moby Dick! get it?) to their limit in his single-minded pursuit of a championship. President Affenlight is a 60-year-old man of letters whose greatest academic achievement is decades behind him; he creates meaning in his fading life by obsessing over Henry’s roommate Owen (also a baseball player). Affenlight’s daughter Pella decides she’s done being a kept woman and floats into Westish looking for a vocation, latching onto dishwashing (and Schwartz) by happenstance. Five hundred pages of characters chasing white whales to the point of insanity. Maybe lifelong goals should remain unachievable, because what could possibly come after?
Recommended for people who like baseball or book clubbers who missed this novel’s debut in 2011, with one huge caveat.*
*One character is treated so badly I knocked off a full star. Brilliant baseball player and environmental activist Owen—who doesn’t get a point of view—is not a person so much as a totem. To Henry, he’s the perfect gay roommate: witty, impeccably dressed, decor-minded, and eager to dress his frumpy friend in stylish jeans. To Affenlight, Owen is a black Adonis, a fetish defined by his “smooth skin,” a “butterscotch voice,” a “saintly” and “beatific” face (his teammates even nickname him Buddha). To the author, Owen is a convenient deus ex machina. Need to throw Henry off his game? Have him gruesomely injure Owen! Need a calm voice of reason to balance out Schwartz’s judgmental intensity? Have Owen hand out verbal cookies: “You are skilled! I exhort you!” Need Affenlight to act like a teenager and torpedo his career? Have Owen unintentionally (?) seduce him with his sexy minx ways. Need a place for Pella to indulge in an inappropriate tryst! Have her get her freak on in Owen’s pristinely made bed!
Justice for Owen, who should most definitely take that fellowship and Get Out!