The dominant emotion in The Art of Fielding—the much-anticipated, because expensively acquired, first novel by Chad Harbach, a founding editor of the literary magazine n+1—is nostalgia for life at a small liberal arts college. Westish College is portrayed as a paradise that students are terrified to leave. Its pastoral Wisconsin campus faces Lake Michigan, and the place is a triumph of old-school wholesomeness. This good-enough undergraduate institution is filled with truly good people: a deeply literary president who is personally admirable, even though he has fallen in love with a student; a gruff chef in charge of dining services who is committed to cooking actually good food; a brilliant, gay, mixed-race roommate who takes his hick of a straight roommate shopping for more socially acceptable jeans; a baseball team captain who is a genuine leader of men, and so on. Westish's architecture reinforces one's sense that the place is a contemporary archaism. To the amazement of a freshman who has only ever seen a rural community college before, the buildings match, "each four or five stories high and made of squat gray weatherbeaten stone, with deepset windows and peaked, gabled roofs." This, he thinks, is "college in a movie."
Actually, it's more like boarding school in a young adult novel from at least 60 years ago, if not earlier, before such novels became mostly pseudo-mythic fantasies or grim accounts of social dysfunction. Though suffused with this oddly charming, upbeat schoolboy-novel quality, formally The Art of Fielding must be said to be a baseball novel. It tells the story of Henry Skrimshander, a scrawny shortstop from South Dakota with the uncommon ability to field without making a single error, and Mike Schwartz, the huge, honorable, classics-reading Westish baseball team captain who discovers Henry and gets him recruited to Westish. There Henry puts the team in line for a national championship for the first time in its history. Secondary plot developments do push the campus back into the foreground, though. These include the president's affair, which is with Henry's kindly gay roommate (the one who takes him shopping). Another involves the return of the president's daughter to Westish after a disastrous early marriage and the relationship she starts with Mike Schwartz. Coloring everything is Henry and Mike's fear of having to leave their safe haven and take their places in a remote and not entirely imaginable world.
In any case, whether a baseball novel, a schoolboy novel, or a campus novel, this is a surprisingly sunny story, with the sweetness of tone and conformity to the rules of genre one associates more with juvenile sports fiction. Henry is the proverbial "natural." He and others on the team take a quasi-spiritual approach to baseball, compulsively reading and trying to apply the wisdom of a book of Zen-like sayings, The Art of Fielding, by a defensive shortstop and Hall of Famer named Aparicio Rodriguez (a fictional character, though one whose name alludes to the great real-life shortstop Luis Aparicio). They all possess a naive American faith in the possibility of perfection, as embodied by Henry's state of errorless grace.
Bad things do happen, as they must. A whole chain of them gets unleashed when Henry finally makes an error, a bad throw that winds up putting a teammate in the hospital. But the bad things do not happen primarily because of the corruption inherent in the professionalization of the sport or the encroachment of soulless corporatism, as sometimes happens in more "literary" sports novels. Such things lurk with a very faint menace in the background. Determined scouts and mercenary agents wheel above Henry's head like buzzards. But the world is just too far away from Westish to have much impact, and in any case, one of the scouts winds up being a very nice guy. Instead, bad things happen for reasons that have to do with the characters' own immaturity. The characters deal with the consequences, and they grow up a little bit, and they discover what the game was there to teach them: the art of fielding life.
Whether all this innocence and good will and coming of age can hold our attention depends on the powers of the novelist, of course, and there Harbach shows real talent. It is just as hard (or harder) to breathe life into a world that is deeply well-meaning as it is to animate a world in which threat enlivens benevolence. Harbach writes with a gentle but acute intelligence. I particularly like the aphorisms in Aparicio Rodriguez's little volume, which combine with a convincing yet hilarious sincerity what sounds like solid baseball advice and New Age gobbledygook:
26. The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.
59. To field a groundball must be considered a generous act and an act of comprehension. One moves not against the ball but with it. Bad fielders stab at the ball like an enemy. This is antagonism. 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.
Harbach is a witty observer of college social life. Westish's students "traveled in large packs, constantly texting other packs, and when two packs converged there was always a tremendous amount of hugging and kissing on the cheek." His dialogue tends a bit toward the jokey, although some of the team's locker-room riffs are funny little send-ups of undergraduate speech, and Harbach must have eavesdropped on some serious male shit-shooting in his day: