In retrospect, college is an experience defined by its comforts. The responsibilities of young adulthood are often largely confined to academics and social maturation before they yield to the expenses incurred over four years, which are then exacerbated by new demands: meeting rent and converting one’s new expertise into gainful employment.
The petri dish of college, and its invitation to unfettered self-enhancement and self-discovery, make a convenient, insulated setting for a novel, one where human drama can play out with relatively minor consequences and characters can seem witty and idealistic without raising any eyebrows. Chad Harbach’s winning debut novel, The Art of Fielding, takes great advantage of its cozy narrative confines, though its final pages are perhaps too enamored of them.
Harbach’s appealing cast of characters is led by Henry Skrimshander, a “scrawny novelty of a shortstop” who turns out to be an impeccable defensive presence on the field. Skrimmer, as he comes to be known, is recruited to tiny Westish College—which sits on a hill overlooking Lake Michigan—by Mike Schwartz, the baseball team’s captain and hulking spiritual leader.
Henry arrives at Westish with little but for his personal bible, a book called The Art of Fielding, written by his idol, Aparicio Rodriguez (modeled closely after Ozzie Smith). The book imparts a Zen wisdom and awareness Henry attempts to master on the baseball field, and more clumsily adopts off the field as well. (Snippets offered include “The true fielder lets the path of the ball become his own path, thereby comprehending the ball and dissipating the self, which is the source of all suffering and poor defense” and “There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.”) Henry’s clumsy stoicism is well remarked upon by Harbach, in lines like “Henry nodded in a way he hoped was appropriate.”
Henry fumbles toward self-awareness with the assistance of his “gay mulatto roommate” and teammate, the prodigious intellect Owen Dunne, and, once training season begins, Schwartz, who quickly becomes both brother and father to Henry—bulking him up with protein shakes, forcing him to run stadium steps until he pukes, and most importantly, teaching him how to become as imposing a hitter as he is a defenseman.
Schwartz’s efforts pay dividends, as the Westish team loses its laughingstock status and Henry compiles an error-free streak that rivals that of his hero. Henry’s feats bring major league recruiters out to Westish, and this attracts the attention of the school’s president, Guert Affenlight, a Melville scholar who uses the team’s success as an excuse to make eye contact with Owen, whom Guert has developed a sudden and rather obsessive crush on rather late in life.
On the same day Guert’s twentysomething daughter, Pella, arrives at Westish to flee from a depressing, impulsive marriage, Henry’s streak arrives at a calamitous end. These circumstances allow the novel’s five major characters’ lives to intertwine in a surprisingly organic matter, posing enough interpersonal drama and situational comedy to keep the novel’s remaining 450 pages moving quite briskly through Henry’s traumatic funk.
His drought proves contagious to most of The Art of Fielding’s major characters, and the novel becomes something of a study in how one copes with failure. (Since this is also a novel about college, fear of failure is really just fear of the future.) Take Guert Affenlight, seeking solace in Melville and one of his own students, living in free university housing—like a student and a bachelor, as it’s often noted in the book—rather than considering any life beyond the campus grounds. Our vague protagonist is so crippled by his sudden failure that his only recourse—inspired by his hero, Aparacio—is to try not to think about it. Most effectively, Harbach paints Schwartz as an athletic and academic achiever who has mastered the standards of Westish, but not those of the Ivy Leagues or the outside world.
When these men are forced to think—about their capacity for success, about the potentially dangerous comforts of the relationships—they are begged to change. Harbach has a great sense of the dynamics of friendships and romance, revealed as each character quite distinctly confronts their own existential crisis. Henry realizes his “dream of every day the same” can’t is a sham, and Schwartz accepts “that his understanding and his ambition outstrip[s] his talent.” And Guert, well, Guert comes to see:
A good friend didn’t necessarily make a good father, a good professor didn’t necessarily make a good college president, and a good performer of oral sex on women couldn’t necessarily turn around and start giving blow jobs without submitting to the logic of learning curves.
The minor problem with this otherwise very assured novel, then, is that Harbach doesn’t translate many of these hard truths into concrete actions. Its climax doesn’t mimic but has the same emotional impact as graduation episodes of high school soap operas: Amends are made, goodbyes are said, but hey, we may just get renewed for another season! From the brain of an editor at n+1, an enlightening and reliably depressing journal that regularly calls for and exemplifies boldness in its ideas, this is a curious conclusion, and a submission to comfort.
In this sense, one can sympathize with Vice magazine’s dismissal of the book as “middlebrow fluff,” but The Art of Fielding’s chastity is one of its most enduring and endearing traits, and it befits a novel about self-discovery. (The author isn’t enjoying Franzen comparisons because of any prescient ideas about the Way We Live Now, at least not in this book, but because he can write a page-turner that’s more concerned with internal dilemmas than any action on the page.) Harbach has written and will write nervier works, but his ability to animate a character, a game, and particularly a setting without dialogue rarely fail to impress:
The afternoon had been scorching, and the dog-day humidity had compressed itself into a drumming rain that now, just after dusk, was dwindling to an ambient mist. The lake, churned-up but calm, looked like fresh-poured cement.
There’s a bit of the Skrimmer in the young novelist here, with his seemingly easy mastery of the game and a slight unease about a world outside of its tidy plot mechanics.
Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding was released on September 7 by Little, Brown and Company. To purchase it, click here.