The Art of Fielding, the first novel by n+1 cofounder Chad Harbach, begins and ends with infield practice, with the young shortstop Henry Skrimshander ranging to his backhand, then up the middle, hoovering grounder after grounder with an assurance of motion that seems almost a promise of man's perfectibility. Watching this skinny kid from South Dakota take an extra bucket after an American Legion game, Mike Schwartz, catcher for the baseball team at Westish College, a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Michigan, marvels at "the grace that shaped Henry's every move," and it's the desire for grace—a word Harbach uses frequently in his descriptions of young men fielding ground balls—that animates this book.
Schwartz's nurturing of Henry's gift—securing his admission to college, giving him a workout program and a jar of SuperBoost Nine Thousand, goading the starting shortstop into a suspension to clear Henry's way—are validated as Henry becomes, in the space of his first two seasons and the book's early chapters, one of the nation's top prospects. His almost fable-like rise has an intriguing counterpoint in the backstory of Guert Affenlight, the school president, once a "star" professor at Harvard, described navigating academia and the Cambridge singles scene with an ease that seems almost decadent (in his heyday, we're told, he debated conservative classicist Allan Bloom; he finds baseball "boring"). Now returned to his alma mater, Guert finds renewal in a reckless and nostalgic affair with an undergraduate, and with the arrival of his estranged daughter, the once-precocious Pella, come to rediscover herself through toil in the dining hall and laps in the pool. So Pella swims; Schwartz lifts weights, dips chaw over his thesis, and pops pills for his aching knees; Henry sprints up the stairs of the football stadium in a weighted vest before dawn, so that when "sweat stung his eyes, he thought of the salt as wrongness, impurity, error—spill it onto the concrete and watch it evaporate." For instance. A book's pages haven't coursed with so much spiritually purifying perspiration since Mishima's Runaway Horses.
But the ultimate purpose of all this labor is called into question, at the outset of the Westish Harpooners' best season in memory, when Henry breaks his careerlong errorless streak, develops a throwing block—an existential crisis with a long baseball pedigree—and struggles to understand, for the first time, the nature of his genius. Henry's perspective, in Harbach's close third-person narration, is less lively with contemplation than Schwartz's focus, Pella's bucking introspection, or Guert's lapidary doodles—which is perhaps appropriate. Have you ever looked at an athlete and wondered, "What must it be like, to be able to do that?" Most probably, the answer is that it isn't like anything at all. (This may also be why the fifth of the main characters, Henry's brilliant gay roommate Owen, an implacable line-drive hitter called "Buddha" by his teammates, isn't given his own perspective.)
In her introduction to The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Harbach's n+1 associate Elif Batuman writes that "[f]rom Cervantes onward, the method of the novel has typically been imitation: the characters try to resemble the characters in the books they find meaningful." The meaningful books in The Art of Fielding are the 19th- century American canon, particularly "The Book," as Guert and Pella, with their matching sperm whale tattoos, call Moby-Dick. (From which comes "Skrimshander," one who carves scrimshaw.) Guert recollects the passion and clarity with which he discovered Melville as a student—"he too wanted to unfold himself within himself"—and the young scholars discuss and emulate Emerson on self-knowledge. Harbach's achievement is to reverse-engineer a book to fulfill their yearning for literary virtue and coherence. Affenlight, author of The Sperm-Squeezers, a major "study of the homosocial and homoerotic in nineteenth-century American letters," is reminded by a kiss "of Whitman's adhesion, the liking of like for like"; the following chapter opens with Henry and a teammate in the weight room, "facing each other, pounding out curls with heavy dumbbells in perfect rhythm," their "blood-gorged biceps" mirroring each other exactly.
This conceit works—is almost unobtrusive—because Harbach has written an appealing, sociable book about male camaraderie and mentors and protégés, the life of the body and the life of the mind, against a backdrop with a college campus's sustained sense of place and filigree of time-encapsulating detail. (Henry, arriving at Westish, is overwhelmed by the seemingly fully-formed personhoods of the rest of the freshman class, who "traveled in large packs, constantly texting the other packs, and when two packs converged there was always a tremendous amount of hugging and kissing on the cheek.") Harbach relishes his comically inexorable supporting characters, like Adam Starblind, the team's Hollister-hot ace pitcher, and the school cafeteria's wise and weary Chef Spirodicus. (The names of the Westish players read like an only slightly more Pynchonian than usual box score: Quisp, Loondorf, Suitcase.) The book is engagingly paced, and structured with elegant precision and a scope comfortably spanning much of the Midwest; the prose is often striking, particularly the descriptions of our national pastime, which excite with physical detail and narrative momentum. The Art of Fielding is an American novel to validate its author's faith in such a thing.