The Art Of Fielding by Chad Harbach

IMG_3191A classic example of what we might usefully term the First World Problem novel, The Art of Fielding allows the casual reader to spend more time in the company of amateur baseball players than is perhaps strictly healthy. I went away and looked up what ‘he also had to turn double plays’ really means – and was left none the wiser. I stopped looking things up after that. Yet lack of baseball knowledge is no handicap because this is really a US campus story. Henry Skrimshander arrives at a small, unregarded university in the Mid-West, Westish College. Henry’s talent is in playing baseball and he looks like being a future professional star. Mike Schwartz, captain of the baseball team, has got Henry there. Henry will be rooming with brilliant gay student Owen Dunne. (This. Is. Significant.) Affable college principal Guert Affenlight knows that Henry could get Westish on the map – but his attention is distracted by the visit of semi-estranged daughter Pella, who has left her husband. Plus there’s something even more pressing on Affenlight’s mind. And so the story begins…The thing that struck me when I saw E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial when it came out was not so much the alien but how extraordinary it would be to live in a world where children drove cars. I’ve since learned this is quite normal in America: in Chad Harbach’s book they all have sex, enjoy recreational drugs, commit themselves to semi-professional physical training and pop painkillers too. British undergraduates are – or were, anyway – a bunch of fey chancers compared to these hot-housed, frighteningly driven, money-obsessed students. Perhaps it is different, now, when you pay your own tuition fees. Anyway, in Harbach’s portrayal of likeable characters with knotty issues to deal with, there is more than a hint of John Irving’s work….indeed, there is even an echo of the most telling scene in A Prayer For Owen Meany, a story which hinges on the rogue path of a baseball. And another Owen. It takes a while to get where it’s going, but a multi-stranded narrative is brought together with death, reconciliation and a journey. Shakespeare, as well as Babe Ruth – and Irving, too – would have approved.

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