[xrr rating=3.5/5]A recent article appeared in The Atlantic decrying Chad Harbach’s much-loved debut novel The Art of Fielding as the most overrated book of the year. In this multi-page takedown, B.R. Myers laid out a laundry list of grievances concerning the book, which landed on the New York Times best of 2011 list, using adjectives such as “light” and “insubstantial.” While many of Myers’ objections are valid, the piece doesn’t take away from the fact that Harbach’s book is a compulsively readable look into America’s favorite pastime and the dreams of validation that fill the hearts of both boys and men.

True, The Art of Fielding is at its best when Harbach is describing baseball games and staying away from the inner lives of the characters that populate his novel. It’s an old notion that the keys to human existence can be found on the baseball diamond, but Harbach is damned if he doesn’t scour the diamond and into the outfield for clues. And before you claim that you don’t like baseball and move on to the next review, please know that The Art of Fielding is more a story about a college and its denizens than anything that takes place on the field.

The novel concerns Westish College, a small Wisconsin school on the banks of Lake Michigan. Blue-collar catcher Mike Schwartz recruits shortshop Henry Skrimshander to join the college’s ragtag team, after sensing a gift in the shortshop. Mike watches as Henry blossoms into the team’s star, bringing first success and then MLB scouts to small, Division III Westish. Then something goes horribly awry and Henry becomes the college equivalent of Mackey Sasser. Circling Henry’s meteoric rise and crashing downfall like satellites are his gay roommate Owen Dunne (a wafer-thin character who is quite implausible in his gayness) and Westish College president Guert Affenlight, the ubiquitous bachelor who suddenly becomes gay and falls in love with Owen. Complicating matters is the arrival of Guert’s daughter Pella who is fleeing a dysfunctional marriage. As the team struggles around Henry’s decline, Pella beds Mike first and then Henry.

Harbach may be accused of being a miserablist, but there is something almost austere happening here. The ghost of Herman Melville hangs over Westish College (Guert is a Moby Dick scholar), but Harbach may be deluding himself if he hopes to reach out for that white whale. While Moby Dick speaks to the Human Condition, The Art of Fielding is a John Hughes movie dressed up in the trapping of a literary novel. It is easy to read, the characters have their teenage dramas and the ending is suitably bittersweet.

But back to baseball. The Art of Fielding hits a home run when Harbach follows his characters out onto the field. His prose is clear and easy to follow, even for folks who are not baseball aficionados. The games are suspenseful and hard to predict. As the book wears on, all of its characters fall into decline whether it be physical or emotional. At times, it is almost too much to bear. But the chance of another ball game is around the corner and Harbach can be forgiven for reaching too hard towards forebears such as Robert Lowell and Henry James. It is easy to get caught up in the hype and confuse The Art of Fielding with high art, even with its melodramatic homosexual love affair. Don’t be fooled, this isn’t a book in which we understand the Human Condition. It’s merely nine innings filled with some extra base hits and some errors. And sometimes that will do just fine.

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