As a title, “The Art of Fielding” does double service: for this engaging first novel by Chad Harbach and for a baseball manual cherished by its protagonist, Henry Skrimshander. The book within the book was written by the fictitious Aparicio Rodriguez, a Hall of Fame shortstop for Henry’s beloved St. Louis Cardinals. So closely does Henry emulate Rodriguez that at Westish College in rural Wisconsin, where Henry plays ball, he is closing in on his mentor’s NCAA record of 51 consecutive games without an error, and the Cardinals themselves are scouting him.
Nearly everyone else in this novel either plays for the team (the Harpooners) or follows it religiously. The diminutive, virginal Henry was recruited to Westish by another student, Mike Schwartz, a strapping catcher who acts as his trainer and mentor. Henry’s gay roommate, Owen Dunne, is a player, too. The college president, Guert Affenlight, watches more games than he has time for — and not just because the squad is making a splash for the first time ever. Although Guert has been straight until now, in his early 60s he has fallen in love with Owen. Guert is charming and well-preserved, and Owen reciprocates, but since faculty members are supposed to keep their hands off students, the lovers are reduced to sneaking around campus and checking into motels.
Meanwhile, Guert’s only child, his daughter Pella, has left her husband in California and taken refuge with her father. She and Mike become an item, but almost everything going on at Westish pales beside Henry’s prospects. As the season wears on, he thinks too much about his normally flawless throws, which start eluding the first baseman’s outstretched glove and even sailing into the dugout (there goes the errorless streak). Henry’s meltdown — and the other characters’ reactions to it — gives shape to the novel.
Harbach, who is a co-founder and editor of the magazine n+1, excels in writing about baseball and those who play it. On a single page, he wittily evokes the unruffled Owen, who takes his talent for granted, and the jittery Henry, who is fast becoming a head case. “Owen posed a conundrum where discipline was concerned, because he didn’t seem to care whether he played or not, and when screamed at he would listen and nod with interest, as if gathering data for a paper about apoplexy.” At the other end of the bench sat Henry, bouncing his knee incessantly while he “flipped a handful of sunflower seeds into his mouth and precision-spat the splintered shells into a little pool of Gatorade on the floor.”
The author has wise things to say about coaching, which entails a lot more than spouting win-one-for-the-Gipper pep-rhetoric. Here is Mike contemplating whether to join the coaching ranks after he graduates: What you “had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph.” This sounds, in fact, much like the story of Henry that Harbach himself is telling.
Some passages in the novel run too long: for example, an extended description of the ostentatious warm-ups performed by one of Westish’s rivals. Unlike the other main characters, Owen seems undeveloped — more of a winsome concept than a real person. At one point, Pella dismisses Henry as “a silly kid with a silly problem,” and indeed the novel itself occasionally veers toward Young Adult status — much ado about college games.
But for the most part, Harbach’s hand is sure. He gives depth to both Westish College and Guert by bringing in Herman Melville, who once lectured on campus. Guert’s academic claim to fame is “The Sperm-Squeezers,” a Melville-centric book that explores “the homosocial and the homoerotic in nineteenth-century American letters” (and may be based on Robert K. Martin’s “Hero, Captain, and Stranger”). The students and faculty members regularly cite Emerson, and Whitman’s lovely poem “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing” becomes a kind of anthem for Guert and Owen’s love affair. These echoes of the 19th-century greats lend unexpected richness to a book that ends up high in the standings.
Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.
THE ART OF FIELDING
By Chad Harbach
Little, Brown. 512 pp. $25.99