x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The Art of Fielding: the long story of a shortstop

The story behind Chad Harbach's debut novel is almost as epic as the book itself.

The Art of Fielding follows a young college baseball player’s fortunes. AP
The Art of Fielding follows a young college baseball player’s fortunes. AP

Chad Harbach's first novel is about baseball, but you mustn't let that put you off. Already a sensation in America, the manuscript was subject to a fierce bidding war, eventually securing a six-figure advance from super-editor Michael Pietsch; it's been a US best-seller for three months now, which is no mean feat for a debut given the perennially rumoured death of the novel. This success is all the sweeter for Harbach's years of thankless work on the manuscript in the face of indifference and rejection, described by friends and fellow writers Graydon Carter and Keith Gessen in How a Book is Born, and it's the kind of story that could make even an embittered tyro hopeful about the future.

The Art of Fielding is the story of Henry Skrimshander, a weedy kid but a gifted and intuitive shortstop. His fielding talent - a Zen-like capability to intercept the hardest catch, followed by a flawless throw - is spotted by archetypal sports jock Mike Schwarz, who secures Henry a scholarship at Westish (where Schwarz already studies), a liberal arts college in Wisconsin. Westish haven't won a title in a century but, thanks to Henry's faultless performances, their fortunes begin to turn. The novel rushes along, contagiously joyful, for a couple of years until Henry makes a single bad throw, beaning his room-mate Owen right in the face and knocking him unconscious. Henry subsequently finds himself unable to throw the ball at all and begins to completely unravel.

The Art of Fielding is also the title of a book within the book, and before inadvertently injuring Owen, Henry was just about to equal the fielding record of its author, Aparicio Rodriguez, whose manual is a philosophical tract on the position of shortstop, and Henry's constant source of reference.

In their book-about-the-book, Graydon Carter and Keith Gessen speak of this scene as embryonic - Harbach's first draft and first 10,000 words - although back then the main character was Guert Affenlight, the college president and eminently desirable widower, who had lately and uncomfortably become infatuated with Owen. He rushes onto the diamond when Owen is injured. In the novel's definitive version, however, Henry has become the protagonist.

Affenlight's 25-year-old daughter, Pella, has just returned to Westish, fleeing a failed marriage to an older man. She brings only a beach bag containing some gummy worms, her wallet and a swimming costume: "It was the kind of emphatic gesture she was famous for, at least in her own mind, and should have outgrown by now." Her arrival, though welcome, coincides with Affenlight's own identity crisis over Owen, distracting him from the effort he dearly wants to make as a father.

Here the novel gets its inner life and the title its secondary resonance: fielding is defensive play. The Art of Fielding is about fielding difficult questions as much as catching and throwing; our inner resources, our interpersonal victories and misreadings. In baseball, the shortstop's fielding errors are recorded as red lights on the scoreboard during the game and, by posterity, as statistics on their bubblegum cards. This punishing thoroughness makes it the ideal parallel to our own tenuous position as good people - our moral baseball cards: hearts broken, tempers lost, small but significant lapses. "Baseball, in its quiet way, was an extravagantly harrowing game. Football, basketball, hockey, lacrosse - these were melee sports. You could make yourself useful by hustling and scrapping more than the other guy. You could redeem yourself through sheer desire."

It may not be easy to appreciate the importance of college sports to American culture if you're not from North America, where university teams are televised, corporate-sponsored and followed avidly by fans. Indeed, college sports are the cornerstone of US education and athletics; multiple hotbeds of revenue streams and professional recruitment, respectively.

Without sports scholarships there'd be precious little arts and humanities at degree-level and beyond. Not to mention the thousands of jobs created for agents and talent scouts who zoom from college to college, chasing up every promising adolescent athlete. This is a subject dealt with rather scathingly by Tom Wolfe in his higher-education satire I Am Charlotte Simmons, where bone-headed sporting stars get their education for free and take modules with titles like "Stocks for Jocks". But Wolfe's take is something of an exception.

Certainly, jocks get a hard time in pop culture: their popularity, beauty and confidence in direct proportion to their shallowness and cruelty. The flat bullies of sitcoms and teen dramas who excel at sport but fail emotionally and intellectually. But in the higher art of American literature (where it's the artists and writers who tend to be presented as vain, unlikeable idiots) the jock gets his or her apotheosis: their struggles are lyrically examined and rendered profound, their psychological and physical discipline hymned and analysed with the ferocity of a philosopher. Think of Hal Incandenza and friends in Infinite Jest, the whole cast of Richard Ford's The Sportswriter and more recently Patty, the basketball player in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Or, indeed, the baseball team in Philip Roth's The Great American Novel. High sports writing is more or less a sub-genre of the literary novel.

Pella starts dating Schwarz, but critically fails in two simple requests he makes of her, both with catastrophic consequences at key moments in the story's progress. She is, nonetheless, an extraordinarily likeable and fitting partner for him. In such a predominantly male novel, Pella's is a refreshing and well-drawn perspective. The relationship is utterly convincing: Harbach is particularly good on class and privilege, that taboo of American society. At one point their dialogue leads Pella to an outburst: "I'm sorry I went to prep school, okay? I'm sorry I never worked in a factory. Sure, I dropped out of high school. I wash dishes in a dining hall, but that's just slumming, isn't it, Mike? That's not real…" This is painful insofar as it is a note-to-self, acknowledging a near insurmountable difference. Maybe it isn't a one-way ticket to authenticity, but Schwarz comes from a long line of men who drank themselves to death. It isn't easy for someone of Pella's caste to truly sympathise.

An archetypal sporting hero on the outside, Schwarz also has an intuitive understanding of the art of coaching: "All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? […] You included his flaws. You emphasised the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph." This is both psychologically acute and good writing advice, rendered more poignant by Schwarz's failure to rally Henry from his despondency, post-disaster.

Most admirable is that Harbach has to create an emotional as well as an athletic high point, and this because the sporting dénouement must avoid cliché, like the point scored in the final second. It must, in other words, be convincing without falling into total bathos. Both this and the overall conclusion are among the most moving I've read in a contemporary novel. The emotional connection is key here, because The Art of Fielding is a great novel in that generous sense of classic literature: it eschews the ponderousness and cynicism of ersatz literary fiction while maintaining a genuine faith in the power of humanities education. This has its microcosm in Schwarz, the jock, as a talented student of ancient history.

How a Book is Born, an expanded version of a Vanity Fair feature, is the Kindle-only text about The Art of Fielding's creation. If, like me, you read every single review of and article about a movie once you've seen it as if to prolong the time you spend in its world, this will appeal to you. Written by Graydon Carter and Keith Gessen, it tells the story of the novel's creation in detail, starting with the woes of the cover-designer, who has the unenviable brief of illustrating the novel without any reference to baseball whatsoever.

That Gessen has known Harbach for so long makes for some key insights, including the jobs they get after college - admin and freelance journalism: "It wasn't as hard to pay the bills as we'd feared, but it was hard to pay the bills and write." The story of eventual success thanks to Herculean persistence is a familiar one. What's new here is not only the frank discussion of advances and their capriciousness, but that which makes How a Book is Born a panacea for literary pessimism, both for the relentless nay-saying of the less confident publishing houses and the idealistic ramblings of self-published amateurs. To call an editor a gatekeeper is entirely the wrong metaphor, implying that they are all that stands between us and a cornucopia of suppressed talent. The editor selects not to exclude, but because they care as much about great books as any reader. Even Gessen's interview with Russ Grandinetti, the vice president of Kindle, is heartening: "The only necessary parts of the business are authors and readers […] Everybody else has to figure out how to be useful and relevant in connecting those two groups." Fitting that such a profoundly brilliant entry into the pantheon of American letters should illustrate this point.

Luke Kennard's third poetry collection, The Migraine Hotel, is published by Salt.