I'm sure that I once before read a book called The Art of Fielding, perhaps in the 1960s, but it wasn't a baseball novel; it was a old-fashioned critical monograph about Henry Fielding, the author of Shamela, Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, Amelia, and Jonathan Wild. (For what it's worth, Chad Harbach, who contributed this year's The Art of Fielding, though a skillful plotter, doesn't have the range or the release or the depth to play in Henry F's league.)
I generally stay away from big-selling first novels. I prefer to let them marinate for a decade or two, check out their staying power, before I make an eight-hour commitment (not counting naps) to a 400-pager. It's an economy of my own: there are too many great old things that I haven't gotten around to yet. But I must say that Harbach's Fielding, highly recommended by friends, kept me engaged right down to the last sentence. Plot, plot, plot, is the formula, and there were enough surprises and twists in the story to keep even a skeptic like myself turning pages enthusiastically. It's a hybrid novel, a genre-crosser, with baseball books and academic novels (and a touch of Death in Venice) in its bloodline.
What's best, beside the surprises in the plotting? The characters, most of whom defy or challenge stereotypes, what a blessing. What's worst? The style: not a memorable sentence or turn of phrase in the entire bland (ninth-grade vocabulary, straight-ahead syntax) book. Most disappointing: the killing off of an important character just when his situation becomes interesting and troubling. Harbach, in my opinion, punts just when he should have pulled the goalie and swung for the fences.