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Strong writer seeks his editorial equal
on August 28, 2011
I really liked the first 300 pages of Chad Harbach's debut novel, The Art of Fielding. As I was reading that 3/5 of the book, I probably would have told you that I loved it. But a funny thing happened between that point and turning the final page. The novel drifted, and tried to do things it hadn't before, and ultimately even diluted its own strengths a bit.
Harbach's players are all deserving of praise. They're authentic, human, unique yet relatable - his biggest misstep in their creation is probably their names (another instance where a strong editor maybe could have said, you know, this is distracting). The plot & themes are fairly standard liberal arts college/transitioning to adulthood stuff. The authorial voice is entertaining enough and the various avenues the characters use to avoid or delay their maturation are grounds for meaningful insight, enough that the somewhat cliche' elements are just the field on which Harbach's particular game is played.
The third act drag can mostly be attributed to one thing: in ordering this book, I was anxious about it being a "baseball book". I love baseball and have enjoyed a few fictional journeys into the sport, but generally the game is adequately dramatic and attempts to tell "important" stories in its world fall easily into melodrama. For most of The Art of Fielding, Harbach deftly avoids those traps and temptations. And then, for long stretches of the second half of the novel, it becomes the prose equivalent of underdog sports movies like "Hoosiers". Unfortunately, this is not only distracting, but it's time that could have been spent on resolving and exploring the impact of the interpersonal conflicts that were so well developed in the beginning and middle of the book.
Throughout the novel, there are chapters and characters - fat - that I would have trimmed to make The Art of Fielding a tighter and, to my mind, better reading experience. But most of my complaints are about those last two hundred pages, and took this from being a review about a book I loved, to one about an okay book from a talented writer.