Chad Harbach's debut novel, The Art Of Fielding, is about baseball in the same way Moby-Dick is about whaling. Or in the same way Friday Night Lights is about football.
Which is to say, it is — and it isn't.
Harbach's protagonist, Henry Skrimshander, is a prodigal shortstop at a small, midwestern liberal arts college called Westish University. Henry is destined for the big leagues, until a debilitating mental slump lands him on the bench.
Henry's fall raises big questions about the things we chase in life — a baseball career, a young love, or a great white whale — and what happens when we fall short.
Melville In Mind
"Reading Moby-Dick was really a sort of transformative literary experience for me," Harbach tells NPR's Rachel Martin.
"All my life, I had been hearing about [Moby-Dick] spoken of in these sort of stern and forbidding ways," Harbach says of his time in college. "So I was sort of frightened to read it. Then I found, when I did read it, it was really this sort of bold and brash and funny and musical book that totally astounded me. I think I'm still trying to get over it a little bit."
That was in college. Not long after, Harbach set down his first notes for The Art Of Fielding. Over the next 10 years, when he wasn't working on n + 1, the influential literary magazine he co-founded in New York, he wrote. As he wrote out drafts in longhand, Melville's novel found its way into the story.
One of the main characters, Westish President Guert Affenlight, is a Melville fan.
"Forty years ago, when he was an undergraduate, he discovered a lost lecture Melville delivered at Westish," Harbach explains. "After Affenlight makes this discovery, the school kind of adopts Melville as their sort of mascot and personage."
The Westish athletic teams are called The Harpooners. The college erects a Melville statue on campus. And there are subtler appearances: Henry's surname, Skrimshander, comes from scrimshaw, a word that refers to handiwork made out of whale bones.
The Art Of 'Thoughtless Being'
Skrimshander ascends to NCAA stardom at Westish with the help of Mike Schwartz, a team captain for the Westish baseball team. Where college recruiters see a skinny, sunken-chested benchwarmer, Shwartz sees something else.
"Schwartz is a person who feels that he doesn't possess a kind of transcendent genius," Harbach says. "That's what he sees when Henry is out on the field."
Skrimshander, a student of the game, carries around a worn paperback by a fictional shortstop, also called The Art Of Fielding. He's memorized the book's numbered mantras, guidance like:
3. There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.
33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.
How does Skrimshander master the art of "thoughtless being?"
"It's kind of part and parcel of a real naive innocence on Henry's part," Harbach says. "Over the course of the novel — this is partly what the novel is about — he loses that innocence. He loses that kind of unconscious genius and has to try to figure out if he can get it back in a different way."
A Sudden Loss Of Genius
Named for a real-life Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher from the 1960s, Steve Blass disease is one way to describe Skrimshander's sudden loss of genius: One day, inexplicably, he is unable to cleanly field and throw a baseball.
"Right around the time that I started the book, there were several very, very good and prominent major league baseball players to whom this was happening," Harbach says.
Take the Yankee's Chuck Knoblauch. Knoblauch would field a routine grounder at second base and freeze, double-clutching, unable to throw to first.
"You could just see the wheels turning in his head when he would have to make that throw," Harbach says." I think it's rare that you see an athlete's consciousness exposed like that. The reason athletes are so boring in interviews is because it doesn't really behoove them to show us what's doing on their minds. So when that kind of naturally comes out, I think it can be very moving and weird."
But even the errorless ballplayer faces disappointment, the shortstop in Skrimshander's Art Of Fielding says:
212. 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.
Of course, "fielding the final out" could just as easily mean "finishing 10 years of writing."
"In some ways I think I was very reluctant to let the book go, and was probably very frightened to finish it," Harbach says. "At the moment I'm at this point where I get to go out and talk to people about the book, so instead of having it be my own intensely private relationships with these characters, I get to talk about them with other people."
But the book tour, the dazzling-debut-novel-hype, the attention — Harbach knows these, too, are ephemeral pleasures.
"Soon, when I stop doing that and go back to work on a new thing, I think that will be a strange and emotional time," he says.