I’m about halfway through Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, and enjoying it very much.
There’s a blurb on the cover from Jonathan Franzen, and while there’s a lot in the book that puts me in mind of Franzen — the style of the prose and the way that the characters fight with each other, skilled at inflicting pain, driven by their own self-loathing and self-doubt — there are also brief but fully realized chapters that focuses on the characters in times when they are richly and deeply happy.
In the two of Franzen’s novels that I’ve read — The Corrections and Freedom — the world is so broken that there is no way to imagine unbrokenness. Even were it possible, it’s not entirely clear that Franzen’s characters could recognize happiness. They have nothing to compare it to.
As befits a baseball novel, Harbaugh gives each of his characters fleeting moments of perfection — briefly narrated, but sometimes lasting months at a time. No one can love baseball without seeing or experiencing one of those moments. It’s what keeps us playing (or watching) so many pitches, so many innings, so many games, never knowing when it’ll happen and talking about it for years when it does.
It’s easy to be indifferent to fiction (and baseball), but right now, 250 pages into a 500-page first novel, I can love Harbach for treating his characters with honesty and generosity. I can love him for being a baseball fan.
(Update, 7/6/12: I finished the book yesterday. It’s not perfect, but it’s still the best novel I’ve read in a year or two. Highly recommended.)