“It always saddens me to leave the field. Even fielding the final out to win the World Series, deep in the truest part of me, felt like death.” This quote is from the fictional book of inscrutable lessons for baseball and life that gives n+1 editor Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art of Fielding, its name. It’s the only book that Henry Skrimshander, Westish College’s prescient young shortstop, owns, and he has carried it with him for so long that he no longer needs to look at the pages to read it. The book was written by Henry’s hero, the fictional, legendary shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez, and though its teachings are not limited to the field, there’s only one thing that makes sense to Henry: baseball.
Like a disciplined workout regimen, every day at Westish, a Division III liberal arts college in the Midwest, promises to be just “like the day before but a little better.” Though originally out of his element, reserved, working-class Henry has come to love and depend on the perennial routine of college life, while the man who led him to Westish, Mike Schwartz, an orphan and ambitious captain of both the baseball and football teams, has made a home out of the school’s athletic facilities. Guert Affenlight, Westish’s sixty-year-old president, has turned his alma mater into a perpetual bachelor pad in which he reigns as a big fish in a small pond, and his jaded daughter, Pella, has arrived, after several years off, seeking exile from her failed marriage. The campus offers solace from the outside world and allows its denizens to live almost completely within their heads. Not even classes, parties, or sex, rarely seen or heard, seem to affect its students. But when Westish’s uncannily reliable shortstop, on the brink of a national championship and a major league contract with his favorite team, makes an errant throw that lands his roommate—gay, lithe Owen—in the hospital, the clockwork begins to break down.
The error, Henry’s first since puberty, turns out to be the first in a series as Henry struggles with a case of the yips, a mysterious condition that causes talented athletes to botch routine plays. Former Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch famously suffered from the condition, also known as Steve Blass Disease or Steve Sax Syndrome, after other victims, which led to an unprecedented string of bad throws, one of which, like Henry’s, sent a person to the hospital. While runners make their ways to first base, Henry finds himself holding the ball, pumping his arm impotently as he worries about throwing too hard, too soft, too high, or too low until, finally, he fails to throw at all. For the first time in his life, Henry begins to ask himself why, and in the process, he becomes a symbol of writer’s block, mechanical malfunction, crisis of identity, eagerness to leave, fear of leaving, mainstream postmodernism, and more as the other characters take turns projecting their own problems onto Henry, wrestling the entropy that threatens to dispel their illusions of perfection. Only Henry’s hero, Aparicio Rodriguez, who sits in the stands as Henry attempts to break his record for errorless games, is immune to self-conscious speculation. “Doubt has always existed,” he says. “Even for athletes.”
Harbach wisely refrains from and occasionally makes fun of this tendency to project our lives onto the field, to turn a pastime into a metaphor for life or a narrative of country. Walt Whitman, the poet of democracy or, as Owen pegs him, the poet of “the newly gay,” said that baseball is “America’s game,” that it “belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.” But for Harbach, baseball is something more personal and revealing, something intimate yet voyeuristic. It is an art. As President Affenlight, whose sudden love for Owen leads him to a suspicious number of games, notes: “We all have our doubts and fragilities, but poor Henry had to face his in public at appointed times, with half the crowd anxiously counting on him and the other half cheering for him to fail. Like an actor in a play, his inner turmoil was on display for everyone to observe; unlike an actor in a play, he didn’t get to go home and become someone else. So raw were his struggles that it felt like an invasion of privacy to go to the games.”
Through each of his characters, Harbach convincingly portrays baseball as an art form, a ritualistic theater in which individualism and self-doubt, success and failure, are played out day after day in pinstriped costumes while the players recite lines like “No pain, no gain” and “You can have an off-day, but you can’t have a day off.” But while Harbach successfully captures the elegant, romantic aspects of the game, his attempts to evoke its baser elements—the spitting, the jock itch, the racism and homophobia—are less convincing. He portrays his characters as actors, artists, and scholars, but he rarely shows them as gladiators or, more importantly, as young men and women on the brink of adulthood. Relationships, though they may fall apart, are always civil, and even fist fights are elevated to the realm of theater—halfhearted, calculated performances. The dirt, it seems, has been swept neatly from the pages, with the blood, sweat, and other bodily fluids spilled solely between chapters, the only evidence that they exist at all in the discarded spit cups, used condoms, and lingering smells of future pages.
Harbach clearly wants his novel to be about more than baseball, and indeed, neither love nor knowledge of the game is prerequisite. Baseball is an ambling pastime that lends itself well to the conversation and reflection at which Harbach excels, and the novel’s breezy prose and short, pointed chapters (there are 82 of them) make a five-hundred page novel about baseball surprisingly quick and consistently engaging. Nevertheless, I found myself wishing for him to spend more time watching the game—the signs, the pickoff attempts, the trash-talking—the minutiae that can make baseball boring on TV but suspenseful on the field. Perhaps this is akin to wishing for Moby-Dick, which is referenced often in the novel (the team is called the Harpooners), to have more passages about whaling. But without such details, loftier aspects can seem groundless and mythical. Furthermore, Harbach’s graceful language and knack for self-awareness can seem foreign in the head of a twenty-year-old baseball player who can’t write his own papers, as can PC phrases like freshperson when uttered in a dank men’s locker room. At times, the novel is like that team with the immaculate uniforms and the shiny black cleats, the $400 bats and the freshly mowed, Elysian field. The team that always wins.