At Westish College, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league until a routine throw goes disastrously off course. In the aftermath of his error, the fates of five people are upended.
Chad Harbach’s book The Art of Fielding is not only a wonderful baseball novel — it zooms immediately into the pantheon of classics … Mr. Harbach has the rare abilities to write with earnest, deeply felt emotion without ever veering into sentimentality, and to create quirky, vulnerable and fully imagined characters who instantly take up residence in our own hearts and minds … Mr. Harbach skillfully constructs a story with startling depth of field. Although his novel is strewn with literary allusions, it wears its literary borrowings lightly, focusing instead on the inner lives of its characters … What makes The Art of Fielding so affecting is that it captures these people at that tipping point in their lives when their dreams, seemingly within reach, suddenly lurch out of their grasp (perhaps temporarily, perhaps forever), reminding them of their limitations and the random workings of fate.
To defenders of baseball and literary fiction, the charges against each are familiar, and overlapping: too slow, too precious, not enough action...Chad Harbach makes the case for baseball, thrillingly, in his slow, precious and altogether excellent first novel … If it seems a stretch for a baseball novel to hold truth and beauty and the entire human condition in its mitt, well, The Art of Fielding isn’t really a baseball novel at all, or not only. It’s also a campus novel and a bromance (and for that matter a full-fledged gay romance), a comedy of manners and a tragicomedy of errors … Henry’s crisis is precipitated by overanalysis — he’s paralyzed by thought, by an inability to simply act (or react). This is credible from a sports point of view, and fraught with significance from a literary one...Harbach’s achievement is to transfer the thinking man’s paralysis to the field of play, where every hesitation is amplified and every error judged by an exacting, bloodthirsty audience.
Perhaps the most unusual feature of this unusually charming début is the easy, unpretentious way it has of joining a love of baseball with a love of literature … The central drama of becoming arises from a wildly errant throw by Henry, which injures a teammate and seems to dissolve Henry’s confidence. He is suddenly incapable of throwing accurately, undermined by paralytic self-consciousness, or, Harbach seems to be arguing, by the onset of adulthood itself … The main order of business here is to entertain, and in this Harbach succeeds. His prose, furthermore, is uncommonly resourceful … The dream of perfection deferred allows Harbach to tell a story about our national pastime that manages, as well, to be about our historical present—in other words, a story about fallibility.