The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach weaves a story of youth, identity and belonging against the backdrop of the perfect sport—baseball. The president of a small midwestern college, Guert Affenlight, returns to his alma mater as a Herman Melville authority after years of study at Harvard. Melville’s supposed connection to Wettish College inspires its president, and as the novel progresses, we see Melville’s themes of obsession and purpose drive all the characters. The action centers around shortstop Henry Skrimshander, discovered as an obscure high school star by Wettish player Mike Schwartz, who convinces Henry to attend Wettish and join the team. At Wettish, the Harpooners—no lack of Moby Dick symbols—had struggled as a bottom rung baseball team. But after Henry arrives their fortunes change.
What Harbach brings to the novel is not just the angst of baseball but the struggles each character faces in the need to identify himself and form relationships. As I read this I alternated between loving the symbolism but then finding the events unbelievable. Was the story too contrived to be real or was it an insight to the depth of our being? Over-thought or effortlessly mindful?—well that’s baseball.