You don’t have to like baseball to savor Chad Harbach’s sumptuous debut novel, a wise and tender story of love and friendship, ambition and the cruelty of dashed dreams, featuring an appealing cast of characters.
From the day he discovers Henry Skrimshander on a sun-bleached American Legion baseball field, Mike Schwartz is on a mission to turn the gifted shortstop into a major-league-caliber player. Mike, the team captain who’s writing his senior thesis on the Stoics and quotes Schiller in his pregame speeches, persuades Henry to enroll at tiny Westish College, a school with a charming, if eccentric, attachment to Herman Melville that stems from the unearthing of a long-forgotten lecture the novelist gave there in 1880.
Thanks to Mike’s obsessive coaching, Henry is on the fast track to a hefty signing bonus, until the day a routine throw to first base sails wide, nearly killing his roommate, outfielder Owen “Buddha” Dunne, probably the only player in baseball history to read Kierkegaard in the dugout. But Owen is much more than a victim of Henry’s errant arm. He’s the lover of Guert Affenlight, Melville scholar and Westish College president, whose 23-year-old daughter Pella appears on campus, fleeing her brief marriage, and eventually falls into a relationship with Mike Schwartz. The ensuing intricate emotional dances only add to the growing tension as the Westish Harpooners improbably claw their way to the Division III national championship game.
Harbach demonstrates an impressive gift for balancing his exploration of these fragile entanglements with an absorbing, well-plotted story, so we’re rooting as hard for the small company of troubled souls as we are for the ragtag Westish nine.
There aren’t many books of 500 pages that feel too short. But like a true fan enjoying a game of baseball as it scrolls its leisurely signature across a summer afternoon, there are moments when you will find yourself wishing The Art of Fielding would never end. It’s that good.
BookPage editor Eliza Borné chats with Chad Harbach minutes before his appearance at the Southern Festival of Books: