The sacrifice is one of the fundamental elements of baseball. The bunt is designed to move the runner along the bases. The grounder hit to the right side advances the runner from second to third. The fly ball hit deep enough to allow him to score from third is considered a sacrifice. Sacrifice is an elemental part of life, too. There are sacrifices parents make for children, for instance, and there are the everyday decisions we make that amount to the act of giving up something we value for the sake of something we think of as more worthy. Sacrifice figures prominently in Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, making it both a novel of baseball and life.
It's only one of a number of themes in an intricate novel full of references to Melville, whaling, and literary asides and quotes as wide ranging as Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Owen Wister. An English class sits listening to a recording of Eliot reading The Waste Land. A ballplayer sits in the dugout reading Fear and Trembling. Plato wanders through the pages along with Henry James. And, not surprisingly, Whitman strides manfully here, as well, because the cult of male friendship is a theme as is homosexuality and the sense of ballplayers as a brotherhood. I wondered if I was also reading something with a classical significance. At the heart of a novel filled with Melville and whaling and water sits Pella. Her name means stone in Greek, and her character ripples out to touch every corner of the novel. And she gives as generously as Pandora.
Zen is a theme. Baseball itself is treated as a mystery. The intricacies and rewards of the game are seen as inscrutable as faith. At one point the ability to throw a ball is explained as an alchemical thing only superheroes possess. Henry Skrimshander, a central character, is a shortstop with the ability to throw with such accuracy that he doesn't know how he does it. It's as elusive as a Zen koan. In fact, a character says about playing baseball, "Sometimes harder is easier." The ball itself is wonderfully described as 2 identical pieces of cover fit together like the classic yin-yang symbol and stitched up with red thread. The novel's characters do whatever it is they do--whether it's playing baseball or cooking or administering a college--in disregard of personal gain but simply for the satisfaction of doing those things well.
The Art of Fielding has been called Franzen-like. I can recognize that in the same detached way the characters are studied, not presented full on but at a slant. Yet, like Franzen, somehow each character is central. Henry Skrimshander, the talented shortstop, stands at the center of the infield. Pella, the stone cast into the pool of characters, stands in the center of her ripples. Mike Schwartz, the catcher, squats at the vertex of the diamond's angle. They and every other character is in some kind of molecular motion that keeps them prominent.
This novel gets one of my highest compliments--it's elegant. It's as graceful as a shortstop's single-motion scoop of a grounder in the hole and throw to first. It's elegant enough to be a literary novel about baseball. It's elegant enough to be a baseball novel about the moral complexities we all face. It's logical and romantic at the same time. Harbach has knocked the cover off the ball.