The Perfect Game
Chad Harbach's baseball novel evokes an American paradise.
"Your back-waxer's name is Madison?"
"He does good work."
"I don't know, Skrim." Schwartz shook his big head sadly. "Remember when it was easy to be a man? Now we're all supposed to be like Captain Abercrombie here. Six-pack abs, three-percent body fat. All that crap. Me, I hearken back to a simpler time." Schwartz patted his thick, sturdy midriff. "A time when a hairy back meant something."
"Profound loneliness?" Starblind offered.
"Warmth. Survival. Evolutionary advantage. Back then, a man's wife and children would burrow into his back hair and wait out the winter."
The best part of the novel, though, for this non-baseball-lover, is the rom-com that unfolds between Schwartz and the president's daughter, Pella, a repentant boarding-school rebel from whose female vantage point we get insightful meditations on the homoeroticism of campus sports. Having arisen from her unhappy marital bed, to which she had taken in despair, she returns to life by involving Schwartz in what Stanley Cavell has called a comedy of remarriage. The fights and misunderstandings that derail the course of their love merely enhance our satisfaction at the restoration of cosmic and social order when the two of them—spoiler alert—figure out both how to be together and how to stay at Westish College. The worst part of the novel involves Pella's father's affair with Henry's gay roommate. Owen Dunne is an exasperatingly handsome and intelligent specimen of a student whose nickname, "Buddha," and unrelentingly genial, enlightened remarks in the face of everyone else's obtuseness had me hoping he'd meet with a fatal accident.
What I kept thinking about after I finished the book, though, was Westish. This nurturing alma mater lies a long way from the broke, embittered country it's set in. It's just as far from places like Winesburg College, the authoritarian Christian college in Ohio that Philip Roth fulminated against in Indignation, or pretty much any other institution of higher education I can think of in modern fiction. Where Westish belongs, it seems to me, is in the shadow of the Enfield Tennis Academy, the camaraderie-filled if ferociously competitive boarding school for future tennis pros in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Westish College lacks Enfield's high-tech feel; all that texting never interferes with the old-fashioned sociability of the quad. Nor is Westish particularly athletic-minded before Henry gets there. But the advent of Henry lets Harbach wallow in the technical details of baseball the way Wallace did in the minutiae of tennis, as well as to chronicle the vicissitudes of genius. One subplot has Schwartz forcing Henry to lift weights nonstop and to bulk up with a powder called SuperBoost 9000 so that he will look more like the kind of cyborg-man who might play baseball on TV.
The idealization of Westish also strikes me as a Wallace-like touch. One of Wallace's signature moves was to appreciate undervalued and frequently ridiculed American institutions: Alcoholics Anonymous in Infinite Jest, the Internal Revenue Service in The Pale King. Decent colleges like Westish do exist, though like the families of the middle-class kids that attend them, they're struggling to hold on to their egalitarian ideals and their humanity, or at least their humanities, in an increasingly unequal, financially strapped, and uncivil America. Perhaps Harbach, like Wallace, wants to show us the good in the things we're letting slip away.
Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.
Photograph by Beowulf Sheehan, courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.