The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach’s excellent first novel, opens with a scene of athletic and aesthetic appreciation. Mike Schwartz, the starting catcher for the fictional Westish College baseball team, is playing in a summer league while home for break. As he packs up his gear after playing a team from South Dakota, Schwartz watches the opposing team’s shortstop come back onto the field to take some extra grounders. He is amazed at the “easy grace” with which the player throws, the quick but unhurried way with which he moves. This, Schwartz thinks, is the best fielder he’s ever seen. The shortstop’s brilliance, he realizes, can only be described poetically: “He remembered a line from Professor Eglantine’s poetry class: Expressionless, expresses God.”

The unattributed line is from Robert Lowell’s 1946 poem “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” and this easy commerce between the world of sports and the world of literature is typical of The Art of Fielding. It is a rare book that can include casual allusions to both Walt Whitman and the sports agent Scott Boras, that can talk as intelligently about former second baseman Steve Sax as about Moby-Dick. It is an even rarer work that can move between such registers without any sense of strain. Yet Harbach is able to pull it off. His writing displays the quiet confidence and agility of a veteran middle infielder.

The shortstop that Schwartz so admires in the novel’s opening pages is Henry Skrimshander. At the behest of Schwartz, Henry decides to enroll at Westish, an idyllic liberal-arts college located “in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin.” The scrawny Henry is a brilliant fielder, making up for his small size with an uncanny sense for where the batted ball will end up: “He didn’t seem to move faster than any other decent shortstop would, and yet he arrived, instantly, impeccably, as if he had some foreknowledge of where the ball was headed.” Henry’s success is dependent on blocking out self-consciousness, and he doesn’t appear to have much of an interior life: as Schwartz remarks at one point, “Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine.” Throughout the novel, Henry remains something of a cipher, an absence around which the plot gravitates.

Schwartz, on the other hand, is pure presence, “huge and mythic and grave.” After a troubled adolescence on Chicago’s Southside, he found his true home at Westish. There, he has come to shape the baseball program through sheer force of will, acting as a de facto coach and serving as Henry’s best friend, mentor, and trainer, pushing him to add muscle to his lean frame and molding him into the first major-league prospect in Westish’s long, ignoble baseball history. (Schwartz is also a top student, writing a thesis on the Stoics and quoting Schiller to fire up his team.)

Schwartz has given so much of himself, in fact, that his own future appears in jeopardy: his knees are shot and he has been rejected by law schools. Henry, on the other hand, appears headed for professional stardom, and Schwartz can’t help but worry over their increasingly diverging trajectories—after he’s drafted, “Henry wouldn’t need Schwartz anymore. Schwartz didn’t know if he was ready for that—ready to not be needed.”

But then, just as Henry is about to tie the collegiate record for consecutive errorless games, he overthrows his first baseman on a routine grounder, nearly killing his teammate Owen in the process. Doubt is introduced into Henry’s machine-like consciousness, and he develops a crushing inability to throw the ball accurately. His professional prospects dwindle, and the terrors of self-definition grow: If he isn’t a baseball player, who is he?

Henry’s errant throw has ramifications beyond anything he could have imagined. It prompts the president of Westish College, Melville scholar Guert Affenlight, to act on his feelings for Owen, Henry’s openly gay teammate and roommate. A tentative, tender erotic relationship develops between the two. When Schwartz falls for Pella, President Affenlight’s brilliant young daughter with a tendency for the “overly emphatic gesture”—she eloped with an older man while still in high school but has since returned to Westish with the hope of starting over—the threads of the plot draw closer and closer together.

The hype surrounding The Art of Fielding—Harbach sold the novel at auction for over $665,000—can’t help but recall last fall’s blockbuster realist novel, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. (Franzen even provided Harbach with a laudatory blurb.) But Franzen and Harbach are very different writers. Franzen is a brilliant novelist of the domestic scene, but he always seems compelled to connect these small, intensely felt dramas to larger cultural and political dramas—to the ills of late capitalism, for instance, or to environmental degradation.

Harbach, on the other hand, is content to dwell almost exclusively on the small world of Westish. In this sense, he reminds me not so much of Franzen as of Anne Tyler. Harbach’s prose, like Tyler’s, is delightfully nimble: nothing seems forced, everything is written with a light touch. And like Tyler, Harbach softens his occasional ironies with a deep affection for his characters. Harbach’s characters matter deeply to him, and they come to matter deeply to us. We care about Henry’s public failures, about Mike’s unsure future, about Pella’s wavering self-confidence.

Many critics have assured readers that The Art of Fielding is not a baseball novel, that it’s just a novel that happens to be about baseball. And, to a certain extent, that is true. If I had to say what the novel is “about,” I’d look to a quotation from a lecture Herman Melville is imagined to have given at Westish. In it, Melville claims that since he became a writer, “scarcely a week has gone by when I do not feel myself unfolding within myself.” The novel is about the different ways in which selves unfold, how the self, for both the young and the old, is something that must be endlessly cultivated rather than fully achieved. The novel is, despite its minor and major tragedies, a hopeful work, one very much indebted to another nineteenth-century American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once observed that “the life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outward to new and larger circles, and that without end.” This is one of the lessons of The Art of Fielding: Being is really a becoming.

And yet, at some deep level, the novel really is about baseball. Harbach includes details that only a true fan, one who has observed the game over a lifetime, would be capable of providing. On the Westish team, sliders are not called “good” but “filthy”; teammates cheer a successful sacrifice bunt more loudly than a home run; Henry, a middle infielder, prefers a small glove and never lets anyone else touch it.

Harbach is even able to offer a taxonomy of the parents of collegiate baseball players. While most of the crowd sits on the bleachers sipping coffee, a select group of fathers, “the ones too tough for decaf, the ones who shot deer,” stand by the fence: “Hands thrust deep in their jacket pockets, they rocked from heel to toe, muttering to one another from the corners of their mouths as they catalogued their sons’ mental errors.” (My brother played baseball at a school that could have served as a model for Westish , and Harbach gets everything right—the hypermasculinity, the physical postures, the quiet, angry carping on the players’ smallest mistakes.) We emerge from the novel with not just a sense of baseball’s inherent poetry and its broader philosophical implications (though we get these as well); we emerge with a sense of baseball as a lived experience.

The Art of Fielding is not a perfect work. The easy, almost unthinking acceptance of the openly gay Owen by his teammates strains credibility. (Distressingly, homophobia is still the norm on most sports teams. But not, apparently, at Westish: when Owen returns from the batter’s box to observe that “that pitcher’s not bad-looking,” his teammates don’t even blink.) Moreover, the second half of the novel seriously drags, and fifty pages could easily have been lopped off without sacrificing much in the way of plot development or characterization.

But these flaws barely mar what is a remarkable first novel. At one point, Pella worries that she can’t give “an answer to the questions she feared most: Who are you? What do you do? Well, what do you want to do?” One might expect Harbach, a co-founder of the hip literary magazine n+1, to treat these questions ironically. But The Art of Fielding is a fairly traditional novel, and Harbach appears to be a fairly traditional novelist. For him, Pella’s earnest, important questions—questions about the nature of identity, desire, and the relation between the two—are precisely the kind of questions that the novel exists to explore.

Anthony Domestico is chair of the English and Global Literatures Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Published in the 2011-10-21 issue: View Contents
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