At a small Wisconsin college called Westish, a gifted shortstop named Henry Skrimshander is about to tie a record for errorless games when his throw to first goes awry and beans a teammate in the dugout.
The accident serves to knit together five characters, like the fingers of a baseball mitt, in Chad Harbach’s richly entertaining and accomplished first novel, “The Art of Fielding.”
Henry’s mentor is Mike Schwartz, a hulking jock with a gift for coaching who quotes Marcus Aurelius and aspires to law school. He changes Henry from a kid with a singular fielding talent into a well-rounded ballplayer.
The errant throw hits Henry’s self-described “gay mulatto roommate,” the ever-droll Owen Dunne, whose injury allows college president Guert Affenlight to use hospital visits as the awkward entree to a clandestine affair. Completing the pentagram is Affenlight’s daughter, Pella, who flees back to Westish from a soured marriage and takes up with Mike.
The academic setting lets Harbach have fun with students and faculty. Loner Henry is bemused by his classmates’ behavior: “They traveled in large packs, constantly texting the other packs, and when two packs converged there was always a tremendous amount of hugging and kissing on the cheek.”
Harbach connects an imagined 1880 visit to the school by Herman Melville and Guert’s Harvard dissertation on “the homosocial and the homoerotic in 19th-century American letters,” which becomes an influential book titled “The Sperm-Squeezers.” Owen can’t resist calling it a “seminal” work. Skrimshander is Norse for scrimshaw as well as the landlord’s endearment for Ishmael early in “Moby-Dick.”
There’s enough baseball to satisfy fans of the classic sports tale in which underdogs fight ever more impossible odds when their prodigy falters. Henry’s bible is a book of Zen-like pronouncements called “The Art of Fielding” by Aparicio Rodriguez, the player whose record Henry threatens.
Harbach presents his own koans on the sport when Mike or Henry is flailing at one of life’s curveballs -- and avoids cliches much better than I just did. He conveys the grace of a gifted player and the awe he can inspire. He gets downright poignant at times, given Henry’s dodgy wing: “What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?”
School and sports remain secondary, though, as emotional and sexual complications beset the five central players and Henry’s unreliable arm drags him into physical and psychological decline. Yet even while the book darkens, Harbach seems to be smiling at his creation, enjoying the many large and small resonances, the pleasure of writing when it works.
Look at all the threads drawn together in these few words where Henry fears he is losing Mike: “Pella and Schwartz made a perfect whole, like the yin and yang on Owen’s favorite pajamas, or the two halves of a baseball’s cover, two infinity-shaped pieces of leather stitched together with love’s red thread.”
Guert’s December-May affair with Owen stirs a doubt that reflects, with humor, their different roles, ages, vigor and interests: “Sometimes Affenlight worried that Owen dallied with him solely so that he could whisper in Affenlight’s ear about campus-wide environmental initiatives.”
Wit and warmth propel “The Art of Fielding.” A couple of plot choices felt off to me, and I sought at least one surprise that didn’t come. Nits aside, I can’t name many books where I’ve so enjoyed the company of the characters as I did these.
I credit the nine years Harbach says he spent writing the novel. For the unsalaried co-editor of n+1, the literary journal he helped found, the time invested has been repaid with a hefty book contract of about $650,000 and HBO’s plans to turn “The Art of Fielding” into a dramatic series. Read it first for everything the TV screen will never capture.
“The Art of Fielding” is published by Little, Brown (512 pages, $25.99). To order the book in North America, click here.
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)