The Art Of Fielding attempts to squeeze itself into a well-populated lineup with its tale of a baseball prodigy on the verge of greatness, but novelist Chad Harbach acquits himself well in his first at-bat. The novel’s title doubles as that of the spiritual guide 18-year-old Henry Skrimshander uses to perfect his game while slugging away on an American Legion team in South Dakota, idolizing its shortstop author, Aparicio Rodriguez. Spotted at practice after a game by captain Mike Schwartz, Henry is speedily recruited by the tony private Westish College, a Wisconsin liberal-arts school best known for a brief visit by Herman Melville. His life comes to revolve around his team, the Westish Harpooners, all of whom carry their own secrets: Schwartz relies on a growing amount of painkillers to keep playing, and as graduation approaches, he hides his final rejection from law school. Henry’s gay roommate Owen, a walk-on with a penchant for reading in the dugout, draws the attentions of none other than Westish President Guert Affenlight, new both to baseball and the affections of men. With Henry leading, the Harpooners are racing toward their best record ever and a playoff berth, just as their star player begins to doubt he can live up to his hero’s performance.
Harbach takes plenty of cues from other great baseball novels, like Bernard Malamud’s The Natural and Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel, but more so from Melville, in a display of cleverness that wraps around Westish life. With its cozy yet choking atmosphere, the college and the concentric ring of the team inside it cause Henry to lose his bearings, but his rookie season represents a collective loss of innocence for all its players, who, united in one spring, come apart when facing its end. (That’s why the dovetailing story of Pella Affenlight, the president’s daughter, doesn’t gibe with the others; arriving on campus wrecked by the end of her marriage, she remains more outline than woman.)
The best plays in The Art Of Fielding come in the gaps between dialogues, as the characters earnestly but unwisely attempt to sort out their conflicting feelings, and Harbach displays a world of patience in allowing them to solve their own problems as if in real time. His treatment of their game is equally measured: The Art Of Fielding captures the bright, big sense of purpose Henry and the other Harpooners feel as they step onto the field, but the book avoids substituting imagery for meaningful interaction. Instead, Henry’s attachment to baseball and his new home delivers a satisfying wallop of meaning that ultimately links his friends’ fates with his.