Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Art of Fielding by Chad Hardwick

Henry Skrimshander is a baseball prodigy; a shortstop with an arm that can throw out anyone and pinpoint accuracy. But as a senior in a small town high school, with no hope of going to college, it looks like his baseball career is almost over.   Mike Schwartz plays college ball for the mediocre Westish College Harpooners.  He loves Westish and he loves baseball. The summer after Henry's senior year in high school, Mike Schwartz spots Henry during a Legion Ball tournament and recruits him to Westish.

Henry played shortstop, only and ever shortstop -- the most demanding spot on the diamond.  More ground balls were hit to the shortstop than to anyone else, and then he had to make the longest throw to first.  He also had to turn double plays, cover second on steals, keep runners on second from taking long leads, make relay throws from the outfield .... He's spent his life studying the way the ball came off the bat, the angles and the spin, so that he knew in advance whether he should break right or left, whether the ball that came at him would bound up high or skid low to the dirt.  He caught the ball cleanly, always, and made, always, a perfect throw.
 The Art of Fielding is Chad Hardwick's debut novel, and it is one of the best debut novels I've read in a long time.  Hardwick describes baseball with the combination of facts and poetry that baseball deserves, but this is not The Natural or Shoeless Joe.  This is no novel about baseball as a fantasy; there are no magic bats or ghosts in the cornfields.  There bad hops, and errors, and strikeouts.  If games are won, they are won the hard way.  And a hot prospect one day can be dismissed by the major league scouts the next.  More than anything, this novel explains what head-cases baseball players can be and why that is so.
But baseball was different.  Schwartz thought of it as Homeric -- not a scrum but a series of isolated contests.  Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball.  You couldn't storm around, snorting and slapping people, the way Schwartz did while playing football.  You stood and waited and tried to still your mind.  When your moment came, you had to be ready, because if you fucked up, everyone would know whose fault it was.  What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see. 
 Henry's bible is a book called "The Art of Fielding" written by the (fictional) legendary Cardinals shortstop, Aparicio Rodriguez.   (No, the fact that the St. Louis Cardinals are the primary major league baseball team in this novel did not influence me.  Well, maybe a little.)  It is as much a book of philosophy as a book of rules about baseball:

3.  There are three stages:  Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.
33.   Do not confuse the first and third stages.  Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.

 In some ways, the story of Henry is the story of Henry trying to put the rules of "The Art" into effect.  It is not always easy.

 There were, admittedly, many sentences and statements in The Art  that Henry did not yet understand.  The opaque parts of The Art, though, had always been his favorites, even more than the detailed and extremely helpful descriptions of, say, how to keep a runner close to second base (flirtation, Aparicio called it) or what sort of cleats to wear on wet grass.  The opaque parts, frustrating as they could be, gave Henry something to aspire to.  Someday, he dreamed, he would be enough of a ballplayer to crack them open and suck out their hidden wisdom.

Although this is a great novel, it is not a perfect novel - what novel, especially what debut novel, is?  It might have been perfect if Harwick had stuck only to the baseball story.  But Henry and Mike are college boys and this is a college novel.  Hardwick does the college story well enough but not really any better than anyone else and the characters and the college storyline seemed derivative to me.  Especially the requisite older academic having an affair with a student storyline.  The fact that this particular affair involves the academic engaging in his first gay relationship isn't really enough, in my opinion, to differentiate it from all the other college novels with older academics having affairs with students.

Hardwick does a good job creating the character of the older academic but is less successful, in my opinion, with Henry's "gay mulatto roommate" Owen Dunne who ends up in the affair with the older academic.  I never really understood what made Owen tick, he seemed more of a device to me than a real character. 

One reason that it took me so long to pick up this novel, despite it being prominently displayed in bookstores, is because the blurbs made think that it would be too ... male ... to interest me.  And it is very male-oriented.  Hardwick throws in one female character (the older academic's "wild" daughter who never finished high school and instead ran away with yet another older academic, but who is now running home to dad).  Frankly, in many ways, her character didn't make a lot of sense to me. Every time I thought I was getting a handle on who she was, she would do something that seemed out of character.   There were times that I thought this was intentional -- that this is how men (especially college age men) see women -- as unpredictable and not wholly understandable.  But if that was the purpose, Hardwick undermined it by writing entire chapters from her point of view.  Again, she seemed more of a device than a real character.  He did give her a great name -- Pella.   

But none of that really mattered.  The story of Henry, Mike and baseball overwhelmed all the other stories.  I look forward to Hardwick's next novel.  I hope it is something entirely different.