In my estimation any book review that can be tagged ‘debut’, somewhere in the body probably would read ‘his/her scope and ambition far exceeds his/her execution and while there are some good ideas therein, much of the plot is meandering, aimless, and poorly developed.’ Fortunately, I am usually quite wrong and although I find it as incalculable as theoretical physics, young writers are publishing astonishing debuts and a dearth of excellent fiction, praise be the heavens, is not imminent.
Case in point: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. Though Fielding is Harbach’s debut novel, he is in no way a wet behind the ears, inexperienced wordsmith. He graduated from Harvard and is the cofounder and coeditor of n+1, a wonderful, selective journal of news and literature. Accordingly, he has the chops that the Art of Fielding further corroborates. If you’ll excuse the somewhat reductive description, The Art of Fielding is a university novel, a novel of transition taking place on the small upper-Midwestern liberal arts campus of Westish University. The plot, perhaps unintentionally, takes a cue from another baseball novel, Don Delillo’s Underworld , whereby a routine yet errant throw inexplicably sets in motion a series of events. I’m not one for spoilers so I’ll simply report that the lives of five individuals become inexorably and unavoidably entwined.
The serious reader will find some missteps on Harbach’s part; but nothing unforgivable. Some odd plot twists, some characters you wish had a bit more dimension, some questionable decisions. But both the serious and casual reader will appreciate the absence of clumsy sentences and the rapid pace of the novel. And I believe all readers will fully value and come to love the empathy Harbach elicits. Not in the least that elicited by Westish University as a character itself, a character that is wholly unique and separate from our own reality, and frankly something I found difficult to part with.