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:
"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.