Reviews for Art of Fielding

Booklist Reviews 2011 September #1
*Starred Review* Sports fiction has a built-in plot problem. The drama usually rides on a team's success or failure as it moves through a season to the Big Game. The team either overcomes adversity and wins, following in the clich-strewn tradition of everything from The Bad News Bears to Rocky, or it loses, a literarily more resonant route, to be sure, but inevitably unsatisfying if the reader has become a fan along the way. First-novelist Harbach finds an inventive and thoroughly satisfying solution to the Big Game problem, and it works because the reader doesn't live or die with what happens on the field. This sprawling multiple-story saga follows the coming-of-age and midlife crises of five characters at Westish College, a small liberal-arts school in Wisconsin. At the center of it all is Henry Skrimshander, a shortstop of phenomenal ability who has led the school's baseball team to unprecedented heights. Then a wildly errant throw from Henry's usually infallible arm provides the catalyst for game-changing events not only in Henry's life but also in those of his roommate, Owen Dunne; his best friend and mentor, the team's catcher, Mike Schwartz; the school's president, Guert Affenlight; and the president's daughter, Pella. In an immediately accessible narrative reminiscent of John Irving, Harbach (cofounder of the popular literary journal n+1) draws readers into the lives of his characters, plumbing their psyches with remarkable psychological acuity and exploring the transformative effect that love and friendship can have on troubled souls. And, yes, it's a hell of a baseball story, too, no matter who wins. Copyright 2011 Booklist Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2011 August #2

An amiable, Middle American, baseball-centric coming-of-age tale.

Henry Skrimshander seems bound for nowhere special, and fast. He's good enough out on the field, but not quite good enough for the Majors or the Ivy League; as he knows, "College coaches were like girls: their eyes went straight to the biggest, bulkiest guys, regardless of what those guys were really worth." Through good dumb luck, though, catcher Mike Schwartz discovers Henry and gets him a scholarship at Westish College, a middling but OK school up by Lake Michigan, which, though not of Ivy standing, doesn't lack for cliques and cabals. Henry feels somewhat adrift there, though he's steadied by the odd wisdom of the book that gives Harbach's its title. "Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does," runs one of its apothegms, even though death seems less a part of baseball than of, say, bullfighting. Henry's parents are somewhat more than adrift when they learn that he's bunking with a gay roommate who helpfully buys their son clothes so that he can fit in; their small-town heads are in full swoon, but no more than the school's eccentric president, who decides that he might be in love with one of his students at the time that his divorcee adult daughter returns home to whip up storms of the heart all her own. The tale takes turns reminiscent of The World According to Garp, though the influence is incidental; Harbach would seem to owe as much to Twain and Vonnegut as to anyone else. In the end, nothing ever quite turns out like anyone expects, which, as grown-ups know, is the nature of life. The recognition of that truth can lead novelists and their characters into cynicism or lazy contempt, but Harbach's keep both stiff upper lips and smiles on their faces. 

A promising debut—and one guaranteed to draw attention, for it commanded an unusually big advance and will likely be pushed accordingly. Stay tuned.

Copyright Kirkus 2011 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2011 September #1

In this deft first novel, a baseball prodigy comes to Westish College, a small school in upper Wisconsin. Henry Skrimshander is recruited by Mike Schwartz, who plays at Westish and recognizes Henry as one of the greatest shortstops ever. Henry's roommate, the pot-smoking, gay, African American Owen Dunne, also joins the team. College president Guert Affenlight develops a passionate crush on Owen, with whom he improbably begins a clandestine relationship. Unfortunately, as Henry closes in on a fielding milestone, he loses his confidence and falls apart. Guert's long-lost daughter, who has returned to Westish after the collapse of her marriage and hooked up with Mike, tries to help Henry find his throwing arm again. Meanwhile, the ongoing affair between Owen and Guert becomes increasingly difficult to hide as the book climaxes at the Division III national championship. VERDICT Succeeding on many levels, this highly enjoyable and intelligent novel offers several coming-of-age tales set against the background of an exciting and convincing baseball drama. Harbach paints a humorous and resonant portrait of a small college community while effectively portraying the Wisconsin landscape and a lake that provides an almost mystical source of solace and renewal. This should be a popular novel. [See Prepub Alert, 3/14/11.]--Jim Coan, SUNY Coll. at Oneonta

[Page 99]. (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Library Journal Reviews 2011 April #2

Having founded the estimable literary journal n + 1, Harbach was ready for the next challenge: his first novel. His hero, Henry Skrimshander, is a rising baseball star at Wetish College whose life goes off course when he throws a wayward ball. Henry starts to doubt himself, even as team captain Mike Schwartz pushes Henry's career. Meanwhile, Henry's gay roommate pursues a risky affair; college president Guert Affenlight falls hopelessly in love; and Guert's daughter, Pella, returns to campus after ending a disastrous marriage. Harbach's smart reputation and obvious sense of whimsy are pluses, and there's that intriguing stack of relationships. Great publisher expectations, too. Check it out.

[Page 68]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2012 January #5

Harbach's popular debut is part baseball novel, part campus satire, part exploration of male friendship, and part warped 21st-century love story. Juggling all of this would be a heavy burden for any narrator, and while Holter Graham can't quite keep all the balls in the air, he does deliver an engaging performance. Graham handles Harbach's prose gingerly, delicately threading his way through the book's elegant descriptions of life on the baseball diamond. Additionally, Graham delivers distinct voices for Harbach's characters, including wizardly shortstop Henry Skrimshander, college president Guert Affenlight, and Affenlight's searching daughter, Pella. If something of the book's grandeur is lost in the transition to audio, Graham's narration allows listeners--from baseball novices to scholars--an opportunity to immerse themselves in the supremely alluring world of Westish College. A Little, Brown hardcover. (Dec.)

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2011 July #4

Recalling works as disparate as Chaim Potok's The Chosen, John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, and Scott Lasser's Battle Creek, Harbach's big-hearted and defiantly old-fashioned debut demonstrates the rippling effects of a single baseball gone awry. When college shortstop phenom Henry Skrimshander accidentally beans teammate Owen Dunne with a misplaced throw, it starts a chain reaction on the campus of Westish College, "that little school in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin." Owen is solicitously visited in the hospital by school president Guert Affenlight, a widower, who falls in love with the seductive gay student, a "serious breech of professional conduct" that sends potentially devastating ripples through the school. Affenlight's daughter, Pella, after a failed marriage in San Francisco, returns to become part of a love triangle with Henry and Mike Schwartz, the team captain and Henry's unofficial mentor. And just when Henry's hopes of playing for the St. Louis Cardinals come within reach, he suffers a crisis of confidence, even as his team makes a rousing run at the championship. Through it all, Henry finds inspiration in the often philosophically tinged teachings found in The Art of Fielding ("Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does"), by a fictional retired shortstop. Harbach manages incisive characterizations of his five main players, even as his narrative, overlong and prone to affectation, tests the reader's patience.(Sept.)

[Page ]. Copyright 2010 PWxyz LLC