In the mid-1990s, in Ohio, I had the pleasure of playing centerfield for the most unlikely of college baseball teams. We wore purple uniforms and played on a rock-strewn all-grass infield. Our first baseman was the smallest player on the team; our shortstop kept losing his glove at frat parties; and no one could make the throw from third. The pitching staff were an erudite lot, and mound conferences were as likely to feature poetry recitations as pitch sequencing. My junior year, one reserve, citing exceptional balance, refused to buy cleats. He slipped when the first fly ball came his way, and the resulting inside-the-park home run marked the end of his brief career. That he was already on probation, having been among eight of us caught smoking pot during spring training in Florida, didn’t help. (When news of the drug bust reached campus, the grounds crew put in dirt base paths to stop all the grass jokes.) We lost most of our games, but ineptness was only partly to blame, for we played in a league that at its rarefied heights—an unfathomable distance away—included some of the best small-college teams in the country. On road trips, we’d often see scouts in the stands, eyeing our stellar opponents. Every spring, a few of the very best were drafted; occasionally one even reached the big leagues.
In such strange and comic disparity lie the seeds of great fiction, at least according to New York publishers, who competed mightily for the chance to publish N+1 cofounder Chad Harbach’s large-hearted debut novel, The Art of Fielding. Little, Brown won out, paying a reported $665,000 for the honor. And why not? Just listen to this set-up.
Henry Skrimshander, a frail but freakishly talented young shortstop from rural South Dakota, heads out to take extra infield practice after a meaningless American Legion game on a scorching summer day. Watching from the opposing dugout is Mike Schwartz, the cleanup hitter for the Westish College Harpooners. What he witnesses is magic: “The kid glided in front of the first grounder, accepted the ball into his glove with a lazy grace, pivoted and threw to first. Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond. It smacked the pocket of the first baseman’s glove with the sound of a gun going off.”
Henry, as it happens, hasn’t thought much about college, or anything else. He just wants to play shortstop somewhere, anywhere, and Schwartz offers him his chance. Certainly, the Westish nine can use him. Perennial Division III cellar dwellers (the college is located in weather-challenged northern Wisconsin), their most intimidating hitter is a six-foot-six, “mild-eyed” Mormon named Jim “Two-Thirty” Toomer, the nickname referring to the time of day when he hits his batting practice moon shots. “‘We wouldn’t call him Two-Thirty,’” Schwartz tells Henry, “‘if he did it during games.’”
Harbach writes about the Harpooners with touching intimacy (and an impressive knowledge of baseball). As Henry develops under Schwartz’s ruthless tutelage into a muscular baseball machine, the team starts winning for the first time in memory. Thankfully, their delightful quirkiness remains in place. There’s Starblind, a vainglorious Nuke LaLoosh-like fireballer; Coach Cox, who may or may not be a multimillionaire; and a gay bench warmer named Owen Dunne, the team’s sage and conscience, who reads Darwin during games with the help of a clip-on reading light.
Owen is Henry’s roommate, off-the-field mentor, and general antithesis. He’s brilliant, charming, and strikingly handsome, and he somehow catches the eye of Guert Affenlight, the widowed—and heretofore straight—president of the school (Harbach has a way with names: the Harpooners’ lineup card is a masterpiece). One afternoon, Affenlight ventures to a game to see his young crush, if not in action, than at least in uniform. He plans to stay only a few innings—he’s on his way to pick up his newly separated daughter, Pella, who’s moving back home—but finds himself enraptured, and is still at the game when the unthinkable happens: Henry overthrows first base on a routine ground ball. Worse, the throw sails directly toward Owen, who has his head buried in a book at the end of the dugout.
The throw and its splintered aftermath send the novel into overdrive, both on and off the field. Friendships and love affairs spark and fizzle: Schwartz and Henry; Schwartz and Pella; Owen and Affenlight; Pella and Affenlight; the list goes on. Harbach relies heavily on coincidence (“How convenient for the author,” a novelist friend of mine likes to say, whenever she comes across one), but what gets him off the hook is the nature of the story itself. The Art of Fielding exists somewhere just shy of realism (Henry, for instance, has never made an error in his life before his throw gets away), and this slightly suspended atmosphere of belief provides Harbach room to veer any which way he chooses—which he does, often. The result is expansive, thought-provoking and ambitious, at times overly so. For it’s the smaller moments where Harbach truly shines. When Pella first visits Henry’s dorm room, she spots a painting over Henry’s bed and asks him if Owen painted it (almost nothing in the room belongs to Henry himself). “‘When I first moved in I asked Owen that same question,’” Henry tells her, “‘and he said “Sort of, but I stole it from Rothko.” I thought Rothko was like Shopko—that he’d really stolen it, from a store. I was amazed because it’s so big. How would you steal it? Then I took Art 105.’”
Funny, yes, but that’s where the laughs begin and end when it comes to the Westish shortstop. And therein lies the book’s major flaw: Henry Skrimshander, an All-American baseball player, is also an All-American bore. For the novel’s central character, there is nothing besides or beyond baseball—no interests, no parties, no life—and that’s a dangerous way for a writer to proceed. Chad Harbach is already being likened to a younger Jonathan Franzen, and in some ways—like narrative voice and structure, if not quite language—the comparison is almost warranted. Franzen, too, centered his latest novel, Freedom, on a seemingly bland and insular character. But Patty Berglund works where Henry Skrimshander doesn’t because everyone else in Freedom—Patty’s family, friends, and neighbors—bounces off her stolidness, reflecting and refracting, ever-changing, and the reader is left with the feeling that Franzen planned it all that way. Henry serves as no such mirror; rather, for lengthy sections of the story—as Schwartz, Owen, Affenlight, and Pella take flight—he disappears from the reader’s mind altogether.
The book is saved—indeed it soars—when the ensemble cast is at the controls. Harbach spent nine years toiling away at The Art of Fielding and the hard work is more than evident. This is a big book in every way, and its blemishes, when they appear, are those of a first-time novelist holding nothing back. It’s a quality he shares with the Westish Harpooners, as they fight their way to the College World Series. If The Art of Fielding begins as a baseball story, so it ends as one, too—poignantly, beautifully, and improbably.