Considering Australia’s recent Ashes performances, this seems as good a time as any to make a confession: I don’t like cricket.
I know. I’m probably the worst Australian ever. What I’m about to say probably makes me even worse.
I enjoy baseball. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love it, but I did play it for almost ten years as a kid, so I have a soft spot for it. I even went with my family to the Olympics in 2000 to see Australia play a few games.
It was with all of this in mind that I picked up The Art of Fielding, a well-received debut American novel ostensibly about baseball.
Henry Skrimshander has been called to Westish College in Wisconsin on a baseball scholarship. He has been spotted by scouts, and his natural talent is what they want for their floundering team. But no one is perfect, and one day Henry makes a mistake that will have surprising and unexpected effects on everyone around him.
The first chapter of The Art of Fielding is almost perfect. I think, had this been a short story, it would be a glorious piece of literature. The tone Harbach hits is exactly what it should be, as he tells the story of a young kid from South Dakota who loves playing baseball simply because he enjoys it slowly realising that someone might actually pay him to do so. His innocence at his own ability is instantly loveable, in a dopey kind of way.
You really feel for Henry as he struggles to come to terms with the fact that, yes, he isn’t perfect. I’m hoping Tsiolkas covers similar ground later in the year with his new novel, but perhaps in a better way. Henry’s existential crisis comes not from without—he doesn’t collapse in upon himself because he feels pressure to perform from his parents, from his coach, from his teammates—but from within. He is so used to being very good at what he does—and it appears to be the only thing that makes him truly happy—that to suddenly make a quite large and quite obvious mistake shatters him.
The obvious comparison to make with The Art of Fielding is, of course, Jonathan Franzen. Harbach adopts a similar tone, this deeply American style, with equal parts cynicism about the present, and rose-tinted glasses for the past; and the way the story is told—cycling through the different points of view in this quasi-family created on-campus is almost exactly the same as The Corrections. And in the same way, it feels like it is something of a throw-back, a yearning for a simpler time when men holed up in tiny universities could be seen as eternal bachelors without rumours about their sexuality flying; when sport could unite a tiny town; when romance was real. It’s kind of cute in its innocence.
I’m not sure The Art of Fielding is exactly groundbreaking fiction: I didn’t feel like I was ever in danger of having my mind blown by what was about to come. But it is a nice novel to read, easy to digest, and never really challenging. I mean this in a positive manner, I hasten to add—sometimes it’s good to just immerse yourself in the lives of well-drawn characters that feel like they could be your friends.