Let’s Talk Books — The Art of Fielding

Warning: Spoilers

Have you ever read a book that had characters you didn’t really like, but had too much fun questioning their decisions and dialogue that you enjoyed reading the book anyway? The Art of Fielding was that kind of book for me.

I honestly thought I’d hate this title. It was recommended to me as a book about a college baseball team. Fun fact about me: I hate baseball. HATE. IT. As your average dorky person who likes books, video games, etc., it probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that I’m pretty indifferent to sports as a whole. Baseball, however, is the one sport I completely dislike. It’s so… boring. Most of the game is spent watching the players just stand around (which was actually a hilarious comment from one of the characters in the book). Other sports I can see the appeal, but baseball? Nope. Sorry baseball fans, I just don’t see the glamour in it that you guys do. This is also coming from a person whose father is an extremely angry baseball fan, and has brought screams and obscure swearing echoing through our home all my life, so I suppose there’s some additional bias here.

So you might be asking, “Why on earth would you read a book about baseball, then?” That’s precisely what I asked the person who originally recommended me this book, and she said it was still really good despite the baseball themes. And that it wasn’t all baseball. Plus, an author I like gave it a positive review, so when I saw it on clearance for four dollars I thought, “Why not?”

So after sitting on my shelf since February, at the very bottom of my small backlog of used books I’ve picked up throughout the year, I finally read through it. Despite positive comments, I was still hesitant. But to my surprise, I ended up enjoying a lot of the book, even if some of the enjoyment came from criticizing the characters.

The Art of Fielding is told through a third person omniscient perspective, with each chapter focusing on one of the five main characters. Henry is a skilled ballplayer that was scouted by one of the players on Westish College’s baseball team. The student that found him, Schwartz, has spent so much time living on his own and recruiting new players that he starts to develop a crisis as his college career is coming to an end. Owen, Henry’s roommate, is involved in a secret affair with Westish’s president. The president, Affenlight, deals with his newfound homosexuality while battling his desire to be with Owen against the reality of how a student/faculty relationship, including the forty year age difference, is ever going to work. He also has to take on a father role to his daughter Pella, who has reappeared in his life since running away and marrying a man ten years older than her just before graduating high school. Pella has a ton of issues to work through herself, including those with her father and her own artistic and life struggles.

So yeah, there’s definitely a lot more than just baseball going on in this book. Actually, the baseball games themselves are pretty few and far between. I guess whether that would be a positive or negative thing would depend on how much you wanted to read about them. It goes without saying, but this was a positive for me. It allowed The Art of Fielding to focus much more on characterization, which I was surprised at how much it had. There are a lot of conflicts that unfold in this book: Henry develops a hatred for Schwartz for bringing him to Westish and filling his head with dreams and stress of becoming a pro ball player, while at the same time pushing Henry far past his limits; Schwartz hides an emotional breakdown as he’s about to say goodbye to Westish forever after he graduates this season, as it’s been his only home and way of living for so many years; Affenlight gets caught up in the middle of so many different midlife crises, including his relationship as a lover with Owen, his relationship as a father to Pella, his relationship as faculty member to both Henry and Schwartz, and his relationship to himself and the school he’s so rooted in. Pella starts dating Schwartz, Schwartz  gets mad and jealous of Henry and Pella’s ex-husband, they split up, Henry starts sleeping with Pella, Schwartz finds out and then Henry quits the team…

There’s a lot of drama in this book. I can appreciate how interconnected each character is and how each chapter tries to focus on them one at a time.

Of course, that’s not to say each character is a well-written character.

Henry couldn’t be any flatter or more boring if he tried, at least until he starts having a mental breakdown about halfway through the book. And even then, he’s still pretty boring.

Schwartz — I’m not even sure what kind of person he’s supposed to be. He’s described as a stock jock character, but he’s supposed to be well-read (even though we never really see him reading anything)? He also contradicts himself a lot. Like how there’s this one part of the book, when he’s still early in his relationship with Pella, when Schwartz says he doesn’t have time for a girlfriend and that coaching Henry takes top priority. But the next time we see him, he’s sleeping with Pella and he ignores a call from Henry!

When Owen was first introduced, I couldn’t stop laughing. His dialogue was so unrealistic he felt like a token smart kid from a 90s cartoon.

“He spoke so highly of you, and of the more abstract virtues of roommatehood, that I almost forgot to negotiate. Frankly, I find the professionalization of collegiate sport to be a rather despicable phenomenon.” (18)

“Did I forget to mention? I have a gift card for this establishment. And I have to use it right away. Lest it expire.” (27)

“Thank you very kindly for meeting with us today. I found it edifying but more cacophonous than might have been maximally productive. I don’t wish to impose on your busy schedule, but perhaps we could schedule a smaller meeting to determine which initiatives might be fiscally possible?” (78)

Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory. Edd from Ed, Edd, and Eddy. Maybe Jimmy Neutron. These are the kinds of lines I’d expect from cartoon smart kids, not a character from a book of fiction. Especially not a college student. I mean sure, we all have probably met that one pretentious person that littered their speech with as much advanced vocabulary as they possibly could in an attempt to sound smarter, but it’s still pretty unrealistic here. Especially considering he drops this manner of speech partway through the book, for whatever reason. Was it after his accident? Was the accident the reason why? Who knows.

Affenlight. Geez man, you’re kind of all over the place. For someone that thinks and questions his decisions all the time, I had a really difficult time understanding his motivation for anything. For example, why is he attracted to Owen?  And vice versa, for that matter. I never quite understood why a relationship with this big of an age difference existed at all. If they were ten years apart, or maybe even twenty, then I could see an affair happening. What on earth do they see in each other when there’s forty, though? I think the book dives into this a little, but for the life of me I can’t think of it.

Affenlight also dies rather abruptly at the end of the book. Personally, I think it’s heavily implied he killed himself after his affair was caught by the board, but after reading some other people’s reviews it seems it’s also possible he had a heart attack. Either way, it didn’t really sit right with me. As a person that struggles with depression, I can understand how someone killing themselves would come as a surprise to other people, especially if that person kept their issues to themselves. But after spending so much time following Affenlight’s train of thought, I honestly don’t think it seemed like his character to commit suicide. And if he had the heart attack, well… it’s not exactly any less out of the blue than killing himself. Honestly, it felt like Affenlight was killed off in order to make some kind of resolution for the book. All the characters were able to come together, forgive each other, and put Affenlight to rest together.

Pella’s the only character I didn’t have that many qualms with. Granted, she comes off as pretty spoiled and unlikable when she’s first introduced, but her backstory is pretty complicated and believable, if not unusual. Out of all the characters, she’s the only one I feel actively tries to improve herself and her life. She goes back to school, she starts working a job in the cafeteria kitchen, she even starts to learn cooking from the chef and wants to focus on becoming one herself. She’s a girl that made a lot of mistakes and is trying to correct herself, even if she screws up multiple times throughout the story anyway.

Despite all the issues I had with the writing and characters, I still ended up really enjoying The Art of Fielding, save for the last 50 pages or so. It was just over 500 pages, more then I really care for in a novel, but it moved at a pretty good pace and I found myself wanting to keep going. Granted, I didn’t like it for the best reasons. There were a lot of good ideas and backstories here. But like I said, a lot of my enjoyment came from poking fun at the characters and getting addicted to the drama. It’s not a bad read, but it could have used a decent amount of more polishing, so keep that in mind if you decide to give this one a go.

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Info for my edition of The Art of Fielding:

  • Published 2012 by Back Bay Books
  • Paperback, 512 pages
  • ISBN 9-780316-126670
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