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Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding”: A Review

The Beiderwell Gusmao garden in Windsor Village.

From childhood forward, I’ve marked time by school years and baseball seasons. One starts as the other culminates; one ends as the other commences. Together they weave through the calendar stories and themes of growth, change, success, and failure. They offer, by turns, opportunities for reflection and anticipation. Regrets turn dependably into the promise of a fresh start.

Covid 19 has undone these rhythms. The last school year didn’t so much end as melt away. The new one emerges unsteadily from that shapeless close. The current baseball season—abbreviated, uncertain, and sans fans—feels more a concept than a competition. Late blooming roses, just ripened tomatoes, and soon to ripen pomegranates assure me that the earth turns still in its uneven arc about the sun. But my wife is the gardener in the family. Without school years and baseball seasons, I’m adrift in time. Even the movement of a single day blurs. I habitually wear a watch—the same one I’ve worn for nearly 50 years—but yesterday I never got around to winding it. It didn’t matter that the hands read 4:35 from morning to night.

So I was prompted to re-read Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding,” a novel that concerns both baseball and school. It’s a lengthy book that takes its characters through four baseball seasons over four years of college life at a small Midwestern liberal arts school. Those years are marked by physical accomplishment and failure, emotional turmoil, and professional aspiration.

Harbach invokes big themes with a deft touch. Baseball and school involve commitments that play to life’s rhythms and lend relationships substance and structure. He imagines individual lives within carefully constructed social worlds—an important counter to narrowly personal feelings of dislocation that can afflict us these days. Disciplined and routinized activities test self-confidence, inspire aspiration, threaten despair, prompt choices, and—just maybe—reward maturity. Harbach never lands heavily at a fixed place. He conveys life as movement—something that feels both refreshing and needed. And while his focus is on youth, he has written a capacious book that leaves room for thoughts on aging. Ultimately, The Art of Fielding invokes another keenly current theme resonant for all ages: the fragility of grace.

This novel, Harbach’s first and so far only full length fiction, appeared in 2011. It was a product of nearly a decade’s work, and that extended effort shows in the precision and beauty of the writing as well as the care and respect shown to every character. With school, baseball, and most everything else thrown off kilter during the pandemic, it’s a pleasure to read a novel that invokes time as something to measure and use. I’ll reset my watch. I’m sure the staff at Chevalier’s would be glad to order “The Art of Fielding” for you.


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Bruce Beiderwell
Bruce Beiderwell
Bruce Beiderwell was Director UCLA Writing Programs from 2000 until his retirement in 2017. He was called back to that role in November 2019 on an interim basis. He is now again retired and, of course, staying at home.

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