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.”