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The Art of Fielding
By Chad Harbach
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 1, 2012. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Named one of the year's best books by the New York Times, NPR, The New Yorker, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Bloomberg, Kansas City Star, Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Time Out New York.
As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process they forge new bonds, and help one another find their true paths. Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth, The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment — to oneself and to others.
"First novels this complete and consuming come along very, very seldom." –Jonathan Franzen
FOR MY FAMILY
So be cheery, my lads
Let your hearts never fall
While the bold Harpooner
Is striking the ball.
—Westish College fight song
Schwartz didn’t notice the kid during the game. Or rather, he noticed only what everyone else did — that he was the smallest player on the field, a scrawny novelty of a shortstop, quick of foot but weak with the bat. Only after the game ended, when the kid returned to the sun-scorched diamond to take extra grounders, did Schwartz see the grace that shaped Henry’s every move.
This was the second Sunday in August, just before Schwartz’s sophomore year at Westish College, that little school in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin. He’d spent the summer in Chicago, his hometown, and his Legion team had just beaten a bunch of farmboys from South Dakota in the semifinals of a no-name tournament. The few dozen people in the stands clapped mildly as the last out was made. Schwartz, who’d been weak with heat cramps all day, tossed his catcher’s mask aside and hazarded a few unsteady steps toward the dugout. Dizzy, he gave up and sank down to the dirt, let his huge aching back relax against the chain-link fence. It was technically evening, but the sun still beat down wickedly. He’d caught five games since Friday night, roasting like a beetle in his black catcher’s gear.
His teammates slung their gloves into the dugout and headed for the concession stand. The championship game would begin in half an hour. Schwartz hated being the weak one, the one on the verge of passing out, but it couldn’t be helped. He’d been pushing himself hard all summer — lifting weights every morning, ten-hour shifts at the foundry, baseball every night. And then this hellish weather. He should have skipped the tournament—varsity football practice at Westish, an infinitely more important endeavor, started tomorrow at dawn, suicide sprints in shorts and pads. He should be napping right now, preserving his knees, but his teammates had begged him to stick around. Now he was stuck at this ramshackle ballpark between a junkyard and an adult bookstore on the interstate outside Peoria. If he were smart he’d skip the championship game, drive the five hours north to campus, check himself into Student Health for an IV and a little sleep. The thought of Westish soothed him. He closed his eyes and tried to summon his strength.
When he opened his eyes the South Dakota shortstop was jogging back onto the field. As the kid crossed the pitcher’s mound he peeled off his uniform jersey and tossed it aside. He wore a sleeveless white undershirt, had an impossibly concave chest and a fierce farmer’s burn. His arms were as big around as Schwartz’s thumbs. He’d swapped his green Legion cap for a faded red St. Louis Cardinals one. Shaggy dust-blond curls poked out beneath. He looked fourteen, fifteen at most, though the tournament minimum was seventeen.
During the game, Schwartz had figured the kid was too small to hit high heat, so he’d called for one fastball after another, up and in. Before the last, he’d told the kid what was coming and added, “Since you can’t hit it anyway.” The kid swung and missed, gritted his teeth, turned to make the long walk back to the dugout. Just then Schwartz said — ever so softly, so that it would seem to come from inside the kid’s own skull — “Pussy.” The kid paused, his scrawny shoulders tensed like a cat’s, but he didn’t turn around. Nobody ever did.
Now when the kid reached the worked-over dust that marked the shortstop’s spot, he stopped, bouncing on his toes and jangling his limbs as if he needed to get loose. He bobbed and shimmied, windmilled his arms, burning off energy he shouldn’t have had. He’d played as many games in this brutal heat as Schwartz.
Moments later the South Dakota coach strolled onto the field with a bat in one hand and a five-gallon paint bucket in the other. He set the bucket beside home plate and idly chopped at the air with the bat. Another of the South Dakota players trudged out to first base, carrying an identical bucket and yawning sullenly. The coach reached into his bucket, plucked out a ball, and showed it to the shortstop, who nodded and dropped into a shallow crouch, his hands poised just above the dirt.
The kid glided in front of the first grounder, accepted the ball into his glove with a lazy grace, pivoted, and threw to first. Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond. It smacked the pocket of the first baseman’s glove with the sound of a gun going off. The coach hit another, a bit harder: same easy grace, same gunshot report. Schwartz, intrigued, sat up a little. The first baseman caught each throw at sternum height, never needing to move his glove, and dropped the balls into the plastic bucket at his feet.
The coach hit balls harder and farther afield — up the middle, deep in the hole. The kid tracked them down. Several times Schwartz felt sure he would need to slide or dive, or that the ball was flat-out unreachable, but he got to each one with a beat to spare. He didn’t seem to move faster than any other decent shortstop would, and yet he arrived instantly, impeccably, as if he had some foreknowledge of where the ball was headed. Or as if time slowed down for him alone.
After each ball, he dropped back into his feline crouch, the fingertips of his small glove scraping the cooked earth. He barehanded a slow roller and fired to first on a dead run. He leaped high to snag a tailing line drive. Sweat poured down his cheeks as he sliced through the soup-thick air. Even at full speed his face looked bland, almost bored, like that of a virtuoso practicing scales. He weighed a buck and a quarter, maximum. Where the kid’s thoughts were — whether he was having any thoughts at all, behind that blank look — Schwartz couldn’t say. He remembered a line from Professor Eglantine’s poetry class: Expressionless, expresses God.
Then the coach’s bucket was empty and the first baseman’s bucket full, and all three men left the field without a word. Schwartz felt bereft. He wanted the performance to continue. He wanted to rewind it and see it again in slow motion. He looked around to see who else had been watching — wanted at least the pleasure of exchanging a glance with another enraptured witness — but nobody was paying any attention. The few fans who hadn’t gone in search of beer or shade gazed idly at their cell-phone screens. The kid’s loser teammates were already in the parking lot, slamming their trunks.
Fifteen minutes to game time. Schwartz, still dizzy, hauled himself to his feet. He would need two quarts of Gatorade to get through the final game, then a coffee and a can of dip for the long midnight drive. But first he headed for the far dugout, where the kid was packing up his gear. He’d figure out what to say on the way over. All his life Schwartz had yearned to possess some single transcendent talent, some unique brilliance that the world would consent to call genius. Now that he’d seen that kind of talent up close, he couldn’t let it walk away.
Henry Skrimshander stood in line beneath a billowing, navy-and-ecru-striped tent, waiting to obtain his room assignment. It was the last week of August, just three weeks after he’d met Mike Schwartz in Peoria. He’d been on the bus from Lankton all night, and the straps of his duffel bags formed a sweaty X across his chest. A smiling woman in a navy T-shirt with a man’s bearded face on it asked him to spell his name. Henry did so, his heart thumping. Mike Schwartz had assured him that everything was taken care of, but each moment the smiling woman spent flipping through her printouts confirmed what Henry had secretly known all along, made only more apparent by the groomed green lawn and the gray stone buildings that surrounded it, the sun just risen over the steamy lake and the mirrored-glass facade of the library, the lithe tank-topped girl behind him tip-tapping on her iPhone as she sighed with a boredom so sophisticated that Henry could imagine precisely nothing about her life: he didn’t belong here.
He’d been born in Lankton, South Dakota, seventeen and a half years earlier. It was a town of forty-three thousand people, surrounded by seas of corn. His father was a foreman at a metalworking shop. His mom worked part-time as an X-ray technician at All Saints. His little sister, Sophie, was a sophomore at Lankton High.
On Henry’s ninth birthday, his dad had taken him to the sporting goods store and told him to pick out whatever he liked. There had never been any doubt about the choice — there was only one glove in the store with the name of Aparicio Rodriguez inscribed in the pocket—but Henry took his time, trying on every glove, amazed by the sheer fact of being able to choose. The glove seemed huge back then; now it fit him snugly, barely bigger than his left hand. He liked it that way; it helped him feel the ball.
When he came home from Little League games, his mother would ask how many errors he’d made. “Zero!” he’d crow, popping the pocket of his beloved glove with a balled-up fist. His mom still used the name — “Henry, put Zero away, please!” — and he winced, embarrassed, when she did. But in the safety of his mind he never thought of it any other way. Nor did he let anyone else touch Zero. If Henry happened to be on base when an inning ended, his teammates knew better than to ferry his hat and glove onto the diamond for him. “The glove is not an object in the usual sense,” said Aparicio in The Art of Fielding. “For the infielder to divide it from himself, even in thought, is one of the roots of error.”
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. Every Little League coach Henry had ever had took one look at him and pointed toward right field or second base. Or else the coach didn’t point anywhere, just shrugged at the fate that had assigned him this pitiable shrimp, this born benchwarmer.
Bold nowhere else in his life, Henry was bold in this: no matter what the coach said, or what his eyebrows expressed, he would jog out to shortstop, pop his fist into Zero’s pocket, and wait. If the coach shouted at him to go to second base, or right field, or home to his mommy, he would keep standing there, blinking and dumb, popping his fist. Finally someone would hit him a grounder, and he would show what he could do.
What he could do was field. He’d 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.
Sometimes the coach would insist on putting him at second base anyway, or would leave him on the bench; he was that scrawny and pathetic-looking. But after some number of practices and games — two or twelve or twenty, depending on the stubbornness of the coach — he would wind up where he belonged, at shortstop, and his black mood would lift.
When he reached high school, things happened much the same. Coach Hinterberg later told him he’d planned to cut him until the last fifteen minutes of tryouts. Then, from the corner of his eye, he saw Henry make a diving stab of a scorching line drive and, while lying flat on his stomach, flip the ball behind his head and into the hands of the shocked second baseman: double play. The JV team carried an extra player that year, and the extra player wore a brand-new extra-small jersey.
By his junior year he was the starting varsity shortstop. After every game his mom would ask how many errors he’d made, and the answer was always Zero. That summer he played on a team sponsored by the local American Legion. He arranged his hours at the Piggly Wiggly so that he could spend weekends traveling to tournaments. For once, he didn’t have to prove himself. His teammates and Coach Hinterberg knew that, even if he didn’t hit home runs — had never, ever hit a home run — he would still help them win.
Midway through his senior season, though, a sadness set in. He was playing better than ever, but each passing inning brought him closer to the end. He had no hope of playing in college. College coaches were like girls: their eyes went straight to the biggest, bulkiest guys, regardless of what those guys were really worth. Take Andy Tsade, the first baseman on Henry’s summer team, who was going to St. Paul State on a full ride. Andy’s arm was average, his footwork was sloppy, and he always looked to Henry to tell him where to play. He’d never read The Art of Fielding. But he was big and left-handed and every so often he crushed one over the fence. One day he crushed one over the fence with the St. Paul coach watching, and now he got to play baseball for four more years.
Henry’s dad wanted him to come work at the metalworking shop — two of the guys were retiring at year’s end. Henry said maybe he’d go to Lankton CC for a couple of years, take some bookkeeping and accounting classes. Some of his classmates were going to college to pursue their dreams; others had no dreams, and were getting jobs and drinking beer. He couldn’t identify with either. He’d only ever wanted to play baseball.
The tournament in Peoria had been the last of the summer. Henry and his teammates lost in the semifinals to a team of enormous sluggers from Chicago. Afterward, he jogged back out to shortstop to take fifty practice grounders, the way he always did. There was nothing left to practice for, no reason to try to improve, but that didn’t mean he didn’t want to. As Coach Hinterberg tried to rip the ball past him, Henry imagined the same scenario as always: he was playing shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 7 of the World Series, against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, ahead by one, two outs, bases loaded. Make the last play and win it all.
As he was putting Zero into his bag, a hand gripped his shoulder and spun him around. He found himself face-to-face — or face-to-neck, since the other man was taller and wearing spikes — with the catcher from the Chicago team. Henry recognized him instantly: during the game he’d tipped Henry the pitch and then called him a name. He’d also hit a home run that cleared the center-field wall by thirty feet. Now he fixed his big amber eyes on Henry with a fierce intensity.
“I’m glad I found you.” The catcher removed his huge sweaty hand from Henry’s shoulder and proffered it. “Mike Schwartz.”
Mike Schwartz’s hair was matted and wild. Sweat and dirt streaked his face. The sweat made his eye black bleed down his cheekbones onto his heavy stubble.
“I watched you taking ground balls,” he said. “Two things impressed me. First, that you were out there working hard in this heat. Christ, I can barely walk. Takes dedication.”
Henry shrugged. “I always do that after a game.”
“The second thing is that you’re a hell of a shortstop. Great first step, great instincts. I don’t know how you got to half those balls. Where are you playing next year?”
“What college. What college are you going to play baseball for?”
“Oh.” Henry paused, embarrassed both by his failure to understand the question and by the answer he would have to give. “I’m not.”
Mike Schwartz, though, seemed pleased by this. He nodded, scratched at the dark stubble on his jaw, smiled. “That’s what you think.”
SCHWARTZ TOLD HENRY that the Westish Harpooners had been crappy for too many years to count, but with Henry’s help they were going to turn it around. He talked about sacrifice, passion, desire, attention to detail, the need to strive like a champion every day. To Henry the words sounded beautiful, like reading Aparicio but better, because Schwartz was standing right there. On the drive back to Lankton, while crammed into the jump seat of Coach Hinterberg’s Dodge Ram, he felt a kind of desolation come over him, because he figured he’d never hear from the big man again, but when he got home there was already a note on the kitchen table in Sophie’s girlish handwriting: Call Mike Shorts!
Three days later, after three long conversations with Schwartz, conducted in secret while his parents were at work, Henry was beginning to believe. “Things are moving slowly,” said Schwartz. “The whole Admissions office is on vacation. But they’re moving. I got a copy of your high school transcript this morning. Nice job in physics.”
“My transcript?” Henry asked, baffled. “How’d you do that?”
“I called the high school.”
Henry was amazed. Perhaps that was obvious — if you want a transcript, call the high school. But he’d never met someone like Schwartz — someone who, when he wanted something, took immediate steps to acquire it. That night at dinner, he cleared his throat and told his parents about Westish College.
His mom looked pleased. “So Mr. Schwartz,” she said, “he’s the baseball coach at this college?”
“Um . . . not exactly. He’s more like a player on the team.”
“Oh. Well. Hm.” His mom tried to keep looking pleased. “And you never met him before last Sunday? And now all this? I have to say, it sounds a little strange.”
“Not to me.” His dad blew his nose on his napkin, leaving the usual dark streak of steel-dust snot. “I’m sure Westish College needs all the money it can scrape together. They’ll stick a hundred gullible suckers on the baseball team, as long as they pay their tuition.”
This was the dark thought Henry had been working hard to suppress: that it was too good to be true. He steadied himself with a sip of milk. “But why would Schwartz care about that?”
Jim Skrimshander grunted. “Why does anybody care about anything?”
“Love,” Sophie said. “He loves Henry. They talk on the phone all day long, like lovebirds.”
“Close, Soph.” Their dad pushed back his chair and carried his plate to the sink. “Money. I’m sure Mike Schwartz gets his cut. A thousand bucks a sucker.”
Later that night, Henry relayed the gist of this conversation to Schwartz. “Bah,” said Schwartz. “Don’t sweat it. He’ll come around.”
“You don’t know my dad.”
“He’ll come around.”
When Henry didn’t hear from Schwartz all weekend, he began to feel glum and foolish about having gotten his hopes up. But on Monday night, his dad came home and put his uneaten bag lunch back in the fridge.
“Are you feeling okay, hon?” asked Henry’s mom.
“I went out for lunch.”
“How nice,” she said. Henry had visited his dad on his lunch hour many times through the years: regardless of the weather, the guys sat outside on the benches that faced the road, backs to the shop, munching their sandwiches. “With the guys?”
“With Mike Schwartz.”
Henry looked at Sophie — sometimes, when he found himself unable to speak, Sophie did it for him. Her eyes were as wide as his. “Well well!” she said. “Tell us more!”
“He dropped by the shop around lunchtime. Took me to Murdock’s.”
Flabbergasted was maybe not a strong or strange enough word to describe how Henry felt. Schwartz lived in Chicago, Chicago was five hundred miles away, and he’d dropped by the shop? And taken Henry’s dad to Murdock’s? And then driven back, without so much as telling Henry he’d done it, much less stopping by to say hello?
“He’s a very serious young man,” his dad was saying.
“Serious as in, Henry can go to Westish? Or serious as in, Henry can’t go to Westish?”
“Henry can do whatever he wants. Nobody’s stopping him from going to Westish or anywhere else. My only concern —”
“Yeay!” Sophie reached across the table and high-fived her brother. “College!”
“— is that he understands what he’s in for. Westish is not your average school. The academics are tough, and the baseball team is a full-time commitment. If Henry’s going to succeed there . . .”
. . . and Henry’s dad, who so rarely strung four words together, especially on a Monday night, went on to talk for the rest of the meal about sacrifice, passion, desire, attention to detail, the need to strive like a champion every day. He was talking just like Mike Schwartz, but he seemed not quite to realize it, and in fact he also sounded a good deal like himself, only in many more words, and with, Henry thought, a slightly more generous attitude toward his son’s talents than usual. As his dad stood up to carry his plate to the sink, he clapped Henry on the shoulder and smiled broadly. “I’m proud of you, buddy. This is a big opportunity. Grab on to it.”
It’s a miracle, Henry thought. Mike Schwartz works miracles. After that, he continued to talk to Schwartz on the phone every night, making plans, working out details — but now he did so openly, in the family room, and his dad hovered nearby, the TV on mute, cigarette going, eavesdropping and shouting out comments. Sometimes Schwartz would ask to talk to Jim. Henry would hand his dad the phone, and his dad would sit down at his desk and go over the Skrimshanders’ tax returns.
“Thanks,” Henry said into the phone, feeling sentimental, on the day he bought his bus ticket. “Thank you.”
“Don’t sweat it, Skrim,” Schwartz said. “It’s football season, and I’m going to be busy. You settle in. I’ll be in touch, okay?”
“PHTJMBER 405,” said the smiling woman. She thrust a key and a paper map into his hand, pointed to the left. “Small Quad.”
Henry slipped through a cool aperture between two buildings and emerged on a bright, bustling scene. This wasn’t Lankton CC: this was college in a movie. The buildings matched — each four or five stories high and made of squat gray weather-beaten stone, with deep-set windows and peaked, gabled roofs. The bike racks and benches were freshly painted navy. Two tall guys in shorts and flip-flops staggered toward an open doorway beneath the weight of a gigantic flat-screen TV. A squirrel tore down out of a tree and bumped against the leg of the guy walking backward — he screamed and dropped to his knees, and the corner of the TV sank into the plush new sod. The other guy laughed. The squirrel was long gone. From an upper window somewhere drifted the sound of a violin.
Henry found Phumber Hall and climbed the stairs to the top floor. The door marked 405 stood slightly ajar, and bleepy, bloopy music came through the gap. Henry lingered nervously in the stairwell. He didn’t know how many roommates he’d have, or what sort of roommates they might be, or what kind of music that was. If he’d been able to imagine the students of Westish College in any specific way, he imagined twelve hundred Mike Schwartzes, huge and mythic and grave, and twelve hundred women of the sort Mike Schwartz might date: leggy, stunning, well versed in ancient history. The whole thing, really, was too intimidating to think about. He nudged the door with his foot.
The room contained two identical steel-frame beds and two sets of identical blond-wood desks, chairs, dressers, and bookshelves. One of the beds was neatly made, with a plush seafoam-green comforter and a wealth of fluffy pillows. The other mattress was bare but for an ugly ocher stain in roughly the size and shape of a person. Both bookshelves had already been neatly filled, the books arranged by author name from Achebe through Tocqueville, with the rest of the Ts through Z piled on the mantel. Henry plunked his bags down on the ocher stain and drew his beat-up copy of Aparicio Rodriguez’s The Art of Fielding out of his shorts’ pocket. The Art was the only book he’d brought with him, the only book Henry knew deeply: suddenly it seemed like this might be a terrible flaw. He prepared to wedge it between Rochefoucauld and Roethke, but lo and behold there was already a copy there, a handsome hardcover with a once-cracked spine. Henry slid it out, turned it in his hands. Inscribed on the flyleaf, in a lovely calligraphic hand, were the words Owen Dunne.
Henry had been reading Aparicio on the overnight bus. Or at least he’d kept the book open on his lap as the dreary slabs of interstate rolled by. By this point in his life, reading Aparicio no longer really qualified as reading, because he had the book more or less memorized. He could flip to a chapter, any chapter, and the shapes of the short, numbered paragraphs were enough to trigger his memory. His lips murmured the words as his eyes, unfocused, scanned the page:
- "Chad Harbach has hit a game-ender with The Art of Fielding. It's pure fun, easy to read, as if the other Fielding had a hand in it--as if Tom Jones were about baseball and college life."—John Irving
- "An intricate, poised, tingling debut. Harbach's muscular prose breathes new life into the American past-time, recasts the personal worlds that orbit around it, and leaves you longing, lingering, and a baseball convert long after the last page."—Téa Obreht, author of The Tiger's Wife
- "The Novel of the MonthSeason Year.... Riveting...[The Art of Fielding] emerges fully formed, a world unto itself. Harbach writes with a tender, egoless virtuosity...There's just something so easy and riveting about the way this book's layers unfold; not since Lonesome Dove have I been so sorry to let a group of characters go."—Andres Corsello, GQ
- "One of those rare novels - like Michael Chabon's Mysteries of Pittsburgh or John Irving's The World According to Garp - that seems to appear out of nowhere, and then dazzles and bewitches and inspires, until you nearly lose your breath from the enjoyment and satisfaction, as well as the unexpected news-blast that the novel is very much alive and well."—James Patterson
- "Spectacular! The Art of Fielding is a wise, warm-hearted, self-assured, and fiercely readable debut, which heralds the coming of a young American writer to watch....You won't want this book to end."—Jonathan Evison
- "When the best shortstop alive sounds believably like a Tibetan lama, and when a thrown ball striking a shovel head at dawn leaves your own head ringing with certainty that truth and friendship have triumphed, you know you're in the hands of a writer you can trust."—David James Duncan
- "Not being a huge fan of the national pastime, I found it easy to resist the urge to pick up this novel, but once I did I gave myself over completely and scarcely paused for meals. Like all successful works of literature The Art of Fielding is an autonomous universe, much like the one we inhabit although somehow more vivid."—Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City and How It Ended
- "Beautifully made, surpassingly human, and quietly subversive, The Art of Fielding restores one's faith in the national pastime--i.e., reading and writing novels."—Benjamin Kunkel, author of Indecision
- On Sale
- May 1, 2012
- Page Count
- 544 pages
- Back Bay Books