“What happened to Steve Blass? Nobody knows, but some speculation is permissible—indeed, is perhaps demanded of anyone who is even faintly aware of the qualities of Steve Blass and the depth of his suffering. Professional sports have a powerful hold on us because they display and glorify remarkable physical capacities, and because the artificial demands of games played for very high rewards produce vivid responses. But sometimes, of course, what is happening on the field seems to speak to something deeper within us; we stop cheering and look on in uneasy silence, for the man out there is no longer just another great athlete, an idealized hero, but only a man—only ourself. We are no longer at a game.”
—Roger Angell, “Gone for Good,” June 1975
Nobody knows. Even 35 years later, nobody knows what happened to Steve Blass, why, after his best season in the major leagues, Steve Blass lost the ability to pitch. Blass was, historically speaking, the first in a list of infamous players that now includes Mackey Sasser, Steve Sax, Chuck Knoblauch, and Rick Ankiel—baseball players who suddenly and inexplicably could no longer do simple tasks that they had long ago perfected.
Sports, as Chad Harbach points out at one point in The Art of Fielding, create a strange paradox between the art they aspire to and the artless, thoughtless repetition required to best attain it. Baseball, just like any other sport, relies heavily on muscle memory and on keeping your brain as far out of your physical movements as possible. KISS, we all hear at some Little League practice: keep it simple, stupid.
Harbach’s much-anticipated debut novel—it isn’t often first-timers get six-figure advances these days—adds another name to that ignominious list with Henry Skrimshander, a balletic shortstop for Division III Westish College in lakeshore Wisconsin. Harbach’s novel essentially takes its cue from Roger Angell’s oft-praised (and deservedly so) profile of Blass from 1975: What happens to a baseball player when he loses the ability to play baseball? What happens when your self-definition dissolves?*
*There are, of course, certain significant differences between what happened to Blass in reality and what happens to Henry in fiction. First, Henry is a shortstop and not a pitcher, which slows down the onset of the yips that befall him; he can only make so many errors a game. Second, Henry’s symptoms play out in a low level of college baseball, instead of in the National League. Third, there is a direct cause: Henry’s first poor throw strikes his roommate and friend Owen in the face, causing serious injury. Blass’ woes did not have as simple a cause-and-effect narrative. Finally, Henry’s own downfall can be contextualized by examples like Blass’; the pitcher, mind you, wasn’t so lucky.
This is the question that hounds most of the key characters in the novel, whether it’s Henry forgetting how to throw to first base; his mentor Mike Schwartz approaching graduation and thus the end of his athletic career; the university president, Guert Affenlight, altering his own self-conception in fairly large proportions;* or Affenlight’s daughter Pella at her own quarter-life crisis, running back to her father and Westish and away from her older husband.
*Let’s just say the similarities between Guert Affenlight and Gustav von Aschenbach run beyond their names.
So although Harbach is taking on the story of Blass on a smaller and slightly more explicable scale, he’s probing on a much deeper level than Angell could, both because of his medium and the basic human decency of letting Blass get on with his life. Harbach does so in a character-driven style that revels (and more often than not succeeds) in hitting all the right details, both concerning baseball and the small-college setting that surrounds Henry.
Harbach’s control of his main characters is the most impressive thing emerging from the novel. It would be very easy for each of them to devolve into caricatures, and while all of them occasionally show signs of such regression, none of them ever do fully (Henry coming off late in the novel like the bearded, milk-drinking Ron Burgundy is as close as it gets).
But even this is a realistic development for Henry, as seeing everything you’ve worked for in life fall apart at your own hand can be tough to swallow (the Burgundy comparison holds, I suppose). Henry may, in fact, be the least interesting character of the novel, with both Affenlights often stealing the show. But he’s never uninteresting. One of my favorite aspects of Henry’s characterization is Harbach’s creation of a fictional baseball idol for him: Aparicio Rodriguez, a long-time masterful shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals who wrote a hybrid instructional/philosophical guide to fielding the position, also called The Art of Fielding. Typically such authorial bravado—I can invent another author within the novel that my own characters idolize—doesn’t end well, since that fictional author has to be really good to merit such adoration. This was a major flaw, for instance, in Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon. But the italicized numbered aphorisms from Rodriguez’s manual that Harbach intercalates in the novel—“The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.”—are one of its most inventive and consistent sources of entertainment. Would that this other Art of Fielding existed as well.
Harbach is also in command of the perspectives he uses to view baseball, life at a university, and life as a 20-something. None of these themes are approached from a single point-of-view, and Harbach moves gracefully among perspectives that remain unique and self-contained. When Pella goes for a walk after a fight with Schwartz, her internal monologue is pitch-perfect:
“It was amazing the way people hemmed each other in, forced each other to act in such narrowly determined ways, as if the world would end if Henry didn’t straighten himself out right now, as if a little struggle with self-doubt might not make him a better person in the long run, as if there were any reason why he shouldn’t take a break from baseball and teach himself to knit, to play the cello, to speak Gaelic—but no, God no, he had to work hard and stay focused and grind it out and keep his chin up and relax and think positive and keep plugging away, subscribe to every stupid cliché Mike or anyone else could throw at him, working and worrying until he started having panic attacks, for Christ’s sake, which wasn’t tragic either but was far from a promising sign.”
Harbach similarly hits the right note more often than not with his details. Pella would carry a Murakami novel, just like Schwartz would drink Schlitz, just like Owen would cite Foucault, just like Westish players would argue the merits of Derek Jeter, just like Affenlight would view what happened to Steve Blass as the culmination of the Modernist movement and the start of the postmodern one. Henry and Schwartz’s friendship has the same self-destructive tendencies that eventually beguile most college friendships, particularly around the time of graduation.
(This isn’t to say the details are flawless. The word “ecru” is used entirely too much. Pella uses “id est” instead of “i.e.” at one point, which no self-respecting 24-year-old has ever done. Harbach’s portrait of a female student who covers the team is less than encouraging—from both a feminine and a journalistic perspective. And the new Murakami novel in Pella’s backpack is said to have a yellow cover, when Norwegian Wood wasn’t new at the time The Art of Fielding is set. These are, quite obviously, nitpicks.)
I have a harder time, however, crediting Harbach with capturing a particular American mood or landscape with The Art of Fielding. The novel has been feted with more than a bit of Franzen-praise, associated with the same kind of veiled-middlebrow exploration of the middle class that earned Freedom both high marks and derision just last year. The similarities to Freedom, though, seem more superficial than anything else. Sure, it’s about the Midwestern middle class, and Harbach’s style is vaguely reminiscent of Franzen’s (if more attuned to the variances of his characters), possessing that likable mix of intelligence and readability.
But whereas Franzen’s novel revolved around a distinctively Aughts family, Harbach’s stuck with Henry—a character that could have existed, lo, all the way back in 1973. The Art of Fielding isn’t a novel about how to deal with all these 21st-century concerns about the performance of your Volvo. It has less of a contextual urgency to its main character in particular. This doesn’t make it worse; only different.*
*I, for one, liked The Art of Fielding considerably more than Freedom, if only because I find baseball a far more inviting backdrop than songbird activism. It can’t touch The Corrections, though, but what American novel in the last decade really can?
Overall, The Art of Fielding is worthy of most if not all of the praise that’s been levied its way these past few months, deserving of its spot on pretty much every top 10 list you’ll see this month. It’s fun to read a novel that can insightfully straddle a serious discussion of baseball on multiple scopes—about what it takes to play shortstop and about what the game means to the culture—and how middle- to upper-class Americans handle the crises that confront them, regardless of age. The Art of Fielding speaks to something deeper within us; we’re not just at a game.