A good baseball coach and a good novelist are a lot alike, according to Chad Harbach's satisfyingly old-fashioned debut, The Art of Fielding. If you're a coach, muses Mike Schwartz, catcher for the Westish College Harpooners, you should ask yourself of each player: "What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself?" And when you told him that story, Schwartz knows, "You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws." Like a novelist, a coach doesn't make it easy on the characters in his clubhouse. "A good coach made you suffer," Schwartz tells us, but "in a way that suited you."
The characters in The Art of Fielding do suffer. They lose jobs, marriages, ballgames. They see their futures snatched away without explanation, and hurt each other without justification. But Harbach is such an empathetic writer — such a good coach — that Schwartz and his teammates suffer in ways suited to them, and feel as smart and human and real as a reader could hope for.
It's Schwartz, the sort of undergraduate go-getter who runs his program by sheer force of personality, who first recruits Henry Skrimshander, a phenom shortstop with a cannon for an arm. Henry is a field rat, willing, under Schwartz's tutelage, to put in the hours in the weight room and the video room and the batting cage, and so by junior year he's a legitimate pro prospect, and the Harpooners — a traditionally lousy team from a tiny college in Wisconsin — have a chance to win their conference.
But a single errant throw early in the season upends Henry's idea of himself. Once he believed he was steadily whittling away the flaws in his game until all that remained was perfection; through endless toil, "everything grew simpler, little by little." But suddenly, on the field, his head is filled with noise, and the throws that once came easily fly wide or high or don't come out of his hand at all. Henry the phenom develops a block.
In real life — most recently with major leaguers Rick Ankiel and Chuck Knoblauch, who both saw their careers threatened when simple throws became impossible — it's nearly unbearable to watch a player come apart; I still remember the sick feeling in my stomach as I saw Ankiel throw pitch after pitch to the backstop in the 2000 playoffs. Eventually, I had to turn the game off. And as you're forced to witness Henry's unraveling, you may agree with the school's president, Guert Affenlight, who thinks the games feel "like an invasion of privacy": "Affenlight felt guilty for being there, and wondered whether spectators should even be allowed."
Thankfully, there's more to The Art of Fielding than the art of fielding, as expertly drawn as Henry's woes might be. For one thing, Henry's teammates aren't stereotypical sports-novel meatheads; they're as likely to debate colloquialisms as to argue about the safety squeeze, and in a welcome nod to the times, one of them, Henry's brilliant roommate Owen, is openly and unremarkably gay. (After executing a perfect sacrifice bunt, Owen returns to the bench, bumps fists, and sits down to resume his book, remarking, "That pitcher's not bad-looking.")
Harbach gives Henry, Schwartz and Affenlight equal time, as well as Affenlight's college-age daughter, Pella. Schwartz is struggling not only with the team but with his own place in the world. Pella is back in town after a failed marriage. Affenlight finds himself falling in love with a student. "Sometimes the body just did what it wanted to," Henry thinks after an exuberant backflip on the infield during better days; everyone in The Art of Fielding finds that's true of the mind and the heart, as well.
In many ways, The Art of Fielding belies its author's status as a founding editor of n+1, the crucial Brooklyn-based journal of literary criticism. Sure, there are disquisitions on Melville and a quote from Robert Lowell. But Harbach's novel might remind you not of the highbrow writers one associates with n+1 but of John Irving's The World According to Garp in its length, its warmth, its love of sudsy plot twists.
That's not a criticism, by the way; like Garp, Fielding is entertaining and touching in its portraits of camaraderie and love, betrayal and victory. It's a novel about baseball that skips right over some of the most crucial games in the Harpooners' season — but that still, as it must, has a scene in which someone wakes up in the hospital and asks, "Who won?" It's not out to subvert the trappings of a sports story but to enlarge them. After all, for Harbach — a splendid athlete himself, based on the time I played touch football against him in Prospect Park years and years ago — sports are not just a plot device or a metaphor but the philosophical structure upon which the world of his novel is built.
Even as everything is going wrong for his friend and his team, Schwartz dwells on why he loves baseball one morning in the school's athletic center. Like art, Schwartz thinks, baseball communicates "something true or even crucial about The Human Condition," despite its apparent pointlessness. "The Human Condition being, basically," he adds, "that we're alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not."