P&P Reading Club: Ted Walker on The Art of Fielding Chapters 1 -17

he art of fielding by chad harbachThe characters who trawl the idyllic college campus of The Art of Fielding include a virtuosic young shortstop from the sticks who, though away from his small-time hometown for the first time, eschews romance and booze in favor of stadium stairs and skull crushers, a renowned college president whose road to achievement was defined by his desire to read every book in the known universe, and a magnetic and Machiavellian catcher who shacks up in a room in the athletic center to be closer to the epicenter of his sweat equity empire. In other words, these are hard-working folks, plying tedious, almost superhuman trades in a setting engineered to exude a sense of academic leisure.

This tension between the halls of pleasure and the thankless underpinnings of success, defines the first seventeen chapters of The Art of Fielding. Mr. Skrimshander, free from any earthly desire save the urge to field perfectly, plods across a landscape where statues gaze meditatively out over peaceful bodies of water without ever lifting his own, and as readers, we barely register that we’re in college at all. Skrimmers’ experience is defined by the complementary tutelages of Schwartz and O., and at this “college in a movie,” as Skrimmer thinks of it, he who was miraculously delivered from the grimness of South Dakota community college to the glory of the small liberal arts college by a hairy guardian angel, thinks that it is “that sameness, that repetition, that gave life meaning.”

Schwartz, for all of his charisma and his unquestioned love for Westish, stays but a half pace ahead of his own self-hatred, and drives on only to stay out of that dark maw. He knows the nooks and crannies of Westish too well, and threatens to destroy mystery altogether. El presidente, on the other hand, having conquered academia, finds the fires of mystery in the forbidden.

Pella, our resident lady, is the only character thus far who seems free to track the path that her passions carve. I, for one, hope that she isn’t punished for it. Already the determined and driven Schwartz has jumped the track on the cusp of graduation, and Henry can see the weird Siren call of money and success from where he stands. Indecision looms. The real world–enemy of the college campus–threatens to force these folks into critical decision-making, off the four-year track that’s laid in front of them.

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