Author: Chad Harbach
Sonora Jha, author, ‘Foreign,’ Random House India reviews 'The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach for IndiaBookStore. The book, a New York Times 'Best Books of 2011', has had the literary world eating out of its hands, so much so that it's being touted as one of the best books on baseballs yet (yes, by Americans themselves!). More on it from Sonora…
Every now and then, a book comes along that sends out a silent reassurance to the reader and the industry that literary fiction is alive and well. ‘The Art of Fielding’ does that and more. With his lingering and loving development of a handful of central characters, writer Chad Harbaugh seems to not only doff his hat to the character-focused traditions of literary fiction, he seems also to be digging his heels in against the industry’s increasingly oppressive norm of “must grab your reader in the first 50 pages.” Go on, Harbaugh seems to say, you’re on page 58, and the plot’s taking its own time, but I dare you to say goodbye to these people in here.
For a first novel, ‘The Art of Fielding’ is ambitious – it’s not really a book about baseball, they’ll tell you, but it is. I know far more about baseball now than I ever cared to know, but that’s because the book is really about human frailty in all its allure (therein lies the ambition), and because it’s all happening, sort of, on the baseball field, and you play along.
The plot follows the fortunes of young Henry Skrimshander, the wildly talented shortstop for the Westish College Harpooners. On his campus in Wisconsin, we encounter his gay room-mate Owen Dunne and his captain and mentor Mike Schwartz. Each of the book’s central characters seems poised in the agony of a decision on whether or not to play (again, not just baseball), and if to play, how, when the fear of failure is front and center?
The fears and ennui and uncertainties of our age have built a tough veneer of the reassurance that as long as we play by the rules, we will stay in good form. It’s when we take a risk, or even think about taking a risk, that we encounter the most fragile and easily dismantled notions of ourselves and of the human condition. And what if we have failed once? What then? How may we get back in the game once we know, in our limbs, exactly what it feels like to lose, to go wrong, or merely to make a mistake?
Westish College president Guert Affenlight, whose daughter returns home from a failed marriage just when he is falling helplessly in love with someone he would never have believed to be the object of his affection, sums up the central punch of the book and its protagonist when he says, “We all have our doubts and fragilities, but poor Henry had to face his in public at appointed times, with half the crowd anxiously counting on him and the other half cheering for him to fail.”
What if, the book asks, we let our lives come unraveled from the tight-knit weaves of perfection on which it seems to be laid out? What if we drop the ball? Harbach takes us through this agony with a light hand. The angst is never too dreary or distancing. Like Skrimshander, we are actually reaching out for it, up, stretching forth, leaning in, but our minds are racing, fielding.
Sonora Jha was born in India, where she had a successful career as a journalist in Mumbai and Bangalore before moving to Singapore and then the United States to earn a Ph.D. in Political Communication. She is now a professor of journalism and the Chair of the Department of Communication at Seattle University. Her first novel, Foreign, has sprung from her work as a journalist, an academic, and a creative writer. Sonora lives in Seattle.
Her debut book Foreign is a fictionalized account of the farmers’ suicides in contemporary India. It is set in Seattle and in Vidarbha, Maharashtra, with the two worlds tumbling together in a web of suicide, politics and betrayal.