by Chad Harbach
Full disclosure: This novel forced me to acknowledge that I really had no idea what a shortstop was, beyond it being some sort of baseball position. Because, WHY WOULD I KNOW? So, that tells you something about me.
And I mention this because, for me, the very best works transcend what may be uninteresting subject matter. For instance, while I am aggressively disinterested in the sport of wrestling and don’t read memoirs, John Irving’s memoir of his life in wrestling (Trying to Save Piggy Sneed) was brilliant. I thought that The Art of Fielding was a fantastic debut novel, but it never transcended the baseball. There’s a lot of baseball, and I’m a girl who doesn’t know what a shortstop is.
Fortunately, this is not a novel about baseball, it’s a novel about character. Specifically, the tale revolves around an ensemble cast of five central characters. The first two (surprise, surprise) meet on a baseball diamond. The novel opens:
“Schwartz didn’t notice the kid during the game. Or rather, he only noticed what everyone else did—that he was the smallest player on the field, a scrawny novelty of a shortstop, quick of foot but weak with the bat. Only after the game ended, when the kid returned to the sun-scorched diamond to take extra grounders, did Schwartz see the grace that shaped Henry’s every move.”
On the day of their meeting, Henry Skrimshander is contemplating the end of his baseball career. He’s graduated from his small
high school, and there’s no college on the horizon. But Mike Schwartz sees the talent that others have missed. And he takes action. (“He knew how to motivate people, manipulate people, move them around; this was his only skill.") With no authority, he promises Henry a place at South Dakota , where he’s about to enter his sophomore year—and delivers on it. By sheer force of will, he changes the course of Henry’s life. Westish College
At Westish, Henry meets the other major players… “My name’s Owen Dunne. I’ll be your gay mulatto roommate.” And then there’s the college president, Guert Affenlight, and his 25-year-old daughter,
. “When they spoke they spoke in monosyllables, more like characters in a Carver story than real live Affenlights.” Pella
I’m concentrating on the characters more than the plot because while a whole lot happens, this truly is the very best kind of character-driven fiction. These five are appealing, fallible, and so very human. In the end, it’s not about the big game, it’s about lives, relationships, and coming of age—no matter your age. Yeah, I could have done with a little less baseball, but even with all the sports, this book was a joy from start to finish. And it augurs a career that many of us will be watching for years to come.