P&P Reading Club: Adam Webb on The Art of Fielding Chapters 1 -17

he art of fielding by chad harbachFind more of Adam at Everyday Footnotes.

Mea culpa guys! I mistakenly purchased The Art of Fiedler, an 81-chapter critical biography of the famed Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler, so if I lapse into commentary about his early training at the Hochschule für Musik Berlin or the tutelage of Karl Muck instead of Westish Colllege and Mike Schwartz, please forgive me.

Since I began reading the correct TAF, I have recommended it to many people. The book is exceeding my high hopes, and the fielding-as-metaphor hasn’t shown up yet. (Have I missed it?) I think it’s natural in assessing the book in chunks of ~100 pages, that I might nitpick (when something is going so well, the slight missteps are fascinating) so I want to be on the record: I am very excited to start chapter 18 as soon as I finish writing this.

The introduction of a few of the characters reminded me of the fabular qualities of some Fitzgerald (especially when he writes about the Midwest). Schwartz seems like an exaggeration of a real person but maybe that means he will stick in my mind forever like what’s-her-name in “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” Along the same lines, Owen Dunne is somehow unrealistically real, more real than any person I have met. Pella Affenflight might fall too easily into that grand cliche of the promiscuous private school girl — but her whale tattoo cancels out my doubts about her character and the possible overkill of the Melville references.

The book was getting started well, thoroughly enjoyable, when my expectations were upended. At the end of the fifth chapter, Harbach moves us forward two years in the space of three pages and he does this in the least writerly way possible. A few chapters later, he pays off the heavy, obvious foreshadowing on page nine (“He caught the ball cleanly, always, and made, always, a perfect throw.”) by killing Owen. Except, as we learn two pages later, Owen is not dead. This sequence blew me away: I was shocked but felt the death had been earned, then I felt manipulated, then I was thrilled to have been manipulated so well and excited to learn what’s in store for Owen that required Harbach to hold onto him.

Last week I made two passing references to Michael Chabon. When I found Sal Phlox on the team in TAF, I figured Harbach was paying homage (a woman named Phlox is part of the love triangle in Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh). Because I haven’t found a Chabon link to Aparicio Rodriguez, I have to ask, is there any way an author puts an A. Rod. in a baseball novel if he doesn’t want the readers to think — even if only for irony’s sake — of A-Rod?

6 Responses to “P&P Reading Club: Adam Webb on The Art of Fielding Chapters 1 -17”

  • Interesting thoughts. However, Aparicio Rodriguez, Harbach’s highly philosophical Hall of Fame SS with a record 16-or-something Gold Gloves, is more likely a nod to Luis Aparicio, one of the best defensive SS to ever play the game. A-Rod the Yankee just doesn’t fit for me. Kudos to you, however, for actually remembering he was a SS, and a very good one at that.

  • I didn’t find the book’s A-Rod to draw me into the real-life A-Rod too much. Likely, that’s because everything beside the name and position point to Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith. Their body types–shorter than six feet, under 160 pounds–fit more with the character’s. Though Alex Rodriguez was a skilled shortstop, his reputation wasn’t up there with Luis Aparicio and Smith. Also, both the book’s Aparicio and the real-life one are Venezuelans. That part isn’t in the first 100 pages, but I don’t think it’s really a spoiler.

    My favorite part of the first 100 pages is how well Harbach introduces characters, holds them up for a bit, then makes them important, exactly as mentioned with Owen.

    Also, was anyone else shocked by how pitch-perfect Harbach was in small details about low-level amateur ball? The weightlifting/protein supplement routine. Specific things done on bus rides. Even starting Mike Schwartz out as the malicious summer-league catcher. It really made the book fantastic for me.

  • Matt, RE your last paragraph: I couldn’t agree more. I could have been reading about my own D-3 team’s trips to Florida in the Spring.

  • A nice little Ozzie allusion, but through Henry (rather than Aparicio), on his first steps on the field as a Harpooner:

    “The next morning, a Saturday, they loaded onto the bus and drove to the complex — eight plush and lovely diamonds laid out in adjacent circles of four diamonds each. The dew twinkled in the buttery Florida sunlight. Henry, as he jogged out to short for infield drills, spun and launched into a backflip, staggering only slightly on the landing.

    ‘Damn, Skrim!’ yelled Starblind from center field. ‘Where’d that come from?’

    Henry didn’t know. He tried to remember the footwork he’d used, but the moment had passed. Sometimes your body just did what it wanted to.” (pp. 37-38)

    We’ve all had those moments of unexpected dexterity, our muscles moving independent of our minds. No thought, no effort, just simple reaction. Just not usually a backflip, I suppose…

    The Wiz, talking defense, “the art of hitting” (his words, oddly enough), and backflips.

  • Adam: I, too, agreed that Owen’s death had been “earned,” which has now created a lot of anticipation for what his future role will be.

    If A-Rod is a tip of a cap to the actual A-Rod, I think it is done for irony’s sake (and maybe as a method of the author just having fun writing a book about something for which he obviously has a passion). Another possibility might be that if the nod is intentional, it could possibly foreshadow a fall that is to take place with Henry, if he were to trade his grace for power via steroids. I’m just guessing here (cause I’m only on page 100), but the whispering of the word “pussy,” the feeling of being undersized, and the shakes could be laying the groundwork for Henry’s game to go that route, which would be interesting, because how do you write a modern day baseball novel without steroids?

  • Brian: Steroids! Of course! You’ve gotta be right! Brilliant!

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