What does it mean to seek beauty? For Mike Schwartz, the exhausted catcher in a lowly summer baseball league somewhere in Illinois, it's watching skinny shortstop Henry Skrimshander take fielding practice.
Schwartz decides he has to have Henry for the Harpooners, his regular team at tiny Westish College in Wisconsin. The team stinks, but Schwartz has high hopes that Henry is the kind of player who will turn things around, giving the Harpooners a real shot at a championship.
It's a simple, well-worn theme. But in The Art of Fielding (which will be published Sept. 7), author Chad Harbach turns common things — the lives of four college students and one college president — into a story that is witty, intellectual and big-hearted. And though he is a debut novelist, Harbach has a writing style that brings to mind literary heavyweights like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace.
Baseball is the book's metaphor for aesthetic perfection, which is what Schwartz sees the first time he sees Henry fielding: "He barehanded a slow roller and fired to first on the dead run. He leaped high to snag a tailing line drive. Sweat poured down his cheeks as he sliced through the soup-thick air. Even at full speed his face looked bland, almost bored, like that of a virtuoso practicing scales. . . . Where the kid's thoughts were — whether he was having any thoughts at all, behind that blank look — Schwartz couldn't say. He remembered a line from Professor Eglantine's poetry class: Expressionless, expressing God."
That last line is a misremembering of the work of poet Robert Lowell, and it points to The Art of Fielding's other preoccupation: literature, and most especially Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. College president Guert Affenlight is a Melville scholar, who by pure happenstance discovered a lost Melville manuscript back when he was an undergraduate at Westish. Affenlight's most important book is The Sperm-Squeezers, "a study of the homosocial and homoerotic in nineteenth century American letters." (A "seminal" work, wisecracks one student.) Affenlight, though, is going through a bit of a crisis: He has secretly fallen in love, and though he is ostensibly straight, his new love is a male student.
At the same time, Affenlight's estranged daughter, Pella, returns to campus, a few years after running off and marrying one of her high school teachers. As she negotiates an end to that too-early union, she gropes her way back toward a college career, recovering the transitional period to adulthood she never had.
Henry, meanwhile, is getting used to life away from his home in South Dakota, finding new friendships, a new training regimen, even new clothes. His infinitely more cosmopolitan roommate is Owen Dunne ("I'll be your gay mulatto roommate," Owen introduces himself), who helps Henry acclimate to college life. A shopping trip to the mall is a comic set piece, with Owen picking out the clothes and telling Henry he'll pay for them; he has gift cards that are about to expire. "You should spend it on yourself," Henry protests. "Certainly not," Owen says. "I would never shop here."
The pivot point of the novel, though, is when Henry, now a successful baseball player, throws an errant ball — his first error, though it's not scored as such — and conks Owen on the head. That sets off a chain of events, and Henry slides into a prolonged slump, losing all his bearings and wondering if he'll ever play again, or if he can even live without baseball.
If Henry represents transcendent talent, then his friend Schwartz is iron will, and it's the immensely likable Schwartz who holds everything together, both on the team and in the novel. Baseball, as Schwartz sees it, is "the production of brute efficiency out of natural genius. For Schwartz, this formed the paradox of baseball . . . You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we're alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not."
While it may seem like heresy to compare a debut author with the late David Foster Wallace, Harbach is undeniably Wallace-like. (Harbach is also an admitted fan.) Only after Wallace would a baseball player cheer on his teammates by yelling, "You are skilled! We exhort you!" And they're similar on the big ideas, too: That people make themselves sick through their own obsessive thoughts. To that point, you'll find a fair share of failure, sexual betrayal and addiction in The Art of Fielding. What makes things better, though, is getting out of your own head — joining a team, perfecting a craft, learning something new — which leads to self-mastery and quiet satisfaction. In Harbach's novel, there is also an understated yet powerful defense of the value of a liberal arts education that echoes the arguments from Wallace's 2005 commencement address that was later published as the book This Is Water.
Harbach's sense of plot and pacing, though, is much more conventional than Wallace's, which means The Art of Fielding is immensely readable and approachable. Though it clocks in at 528 pages, it almost feels as if the novel ends too soon. How I would like to know what happens to Schwartz, Henry, Pella and Owen as they grow into their 30s, 40s and beyond. Alas, The Art of Fielding is a snapshot of the college years, and we're left to ponder how well life lessons can stick. That the characters seem so real is a testament to the winning ways of The Art of Fielding.
Angie Drobnic Holan can be reached at email@example.com.