The Art of Fielding takes place at Westish College, a small liberal arts college on the shore of Lake Michigan and “in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin.” It is the story of four college students, Mike Schwartz, big excellent athlete, whose best talent is spotting talent in other athletes (particularly baseball players) and personally coaching them to success; Henry Skrimshander, a brilliant shortstop from a small town high school in South Dakota whom Schwartz recruits to Westish; Owen Dunne, who introduces himself to Henry as “your gay mulatto roommate” who also plays baseball; and Pella Affenlight, wayward daughter of Westish College President, Guert Affenlight, who is also a main character, as the story plays out.
Guert is a former Westish starting quarterback who, as an undergraduate, discovered in the stack of the college library, a hand-written lecture delivered by Herman Melville in 1880. The discovery changes Guert’s life. He switches his major from Biology to English, becomes a Melville scholar and aspires to write a novel. At age 30 after failing to write a novel (like Melville) he returns to Westish to confront the professor who profited from the discovery of the Melville lecture but never credited Guert. To atone, the prof makes a call to Harvard where Guert soon enrolls in the doctoral program, writes his dissertation (a study of the homosocial and homoerotic in 19th c American letters), expands it into a book which receives wide acclaim. Soon after, he his college girlfriend gets pregnant and when their child, Pella, is three years old her mom goes to Uganda on a grant, her jeep goes off an embankment and she dies. Guert takes on full parental duties of Pella, but now that he’s the head of the English Department at Harvard, “the entire school seemed to consider her their charge” and she becomes quite the free spirit. When Pella is in eighth grade, Guert is offered the Westish College president job. He accepts and sends Pella off to boarding school.
As the book opens Guert is 60, President of Westish and Pella, who has eloped right after high school, is suffering through a bad marriage to an older but very wealthy architect with whom she lives in San Francisco. Pella leaves her husband and shows up on campus and becomes the girlfriend of Mike Schwartz and friend to Henry.
The novel is the coming of age stories of these students, but also the story of Guert Affenlight, at the other end of life’s timeline. Mike, who is driven to push athletes toward success because while living on his own on the South Side of Chicago as a teenager, his high school football coach convinced him (possibly by threatening him with a gun) to get back to school and quit the dead end foundry job he took after quitting high school. He gets to Westish College on a football scholarship and his goal in life, besides helping athletes the way his high school coach helped him, is to go to law school, make something of himself.
Henry just wants to play baseball. Specifically, he wants to be the best shortstop since his hero Aparicio Rodriguez, shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals, who wrote the book, The Art of Fielding, and who holds the major league record for consecutive games without committing an error. Henry practices baseball at every opportunity; he studies the Aparicio book, but it doesn’t look like he’ll make it beyond high school or possibly community college play until he meets Mike Schwartz. Henry’s problem is he’s too skinny.
Owen is less of character trying to find his way in life and more of a catalyst for the other characters. Specifically, he is involved in the event which breaks Henry’s streak of no error games and the relationship which develops between him and Guert Affenlight changes Guert’s life irrevocably.
There’s a lot of jock in this novel. Much of The Art of Fielding takes place in locker rooms and on the baseball field. There is great detail about the workouts that Schwartz pushes Henry through to bulk him up and the games the Westish Harpooners play in Henry’s Freshman, Schwartz’s Senior season. If you don’t like baseball, or were never an athlete yourself, you may not like this book. Then again, if you have an appreciation for American literature, you will like the not so veiled references to Melville, Emerson, Dickinson, Whitman and even John Irving. Or, possibly, you will wish Harbach had a stricter editor. The Art of Fielding is well written, both funny and poignant at times. And after all these characters become somewhat impossibly intertwined, I didn’t know how the author would be able to end things but it’s a fairly satisfying ending. I recommend it.