Henry is a high school phenom who doesn't know he's a phenom and soon becomes, as a member of the Westish College Harpooners, a college phenom. He arrives at Westish shy, naïve, and not especially gifted with a baseball bat. His skills are in the field. "Putting Henry at shortstop," Harbach writes. "Was like taking a painting that had been shoved in a closet and hanging it in the ideal spot." By his junior year, scouts have pegged Henry as one of the top prospects in the country. But decline is always more fascinating than success, especially the bodily decline of sport. The plot here turns, then, upon on errant throw, loosed by Henry, that strikes a friend in the head. Henry is suddenly stricken with Steve Blass Disease, named for the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who forgot how to throw a baseball. "That was what made the story epic," Mike Schwartz, Henry's mentor and Westish's catcher, thinks. "The player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph." The question: What do you do when the thing you're best at, the one thing you truly love, suddenly causes you the most pain?
Harbach is not the first to explore this idea, and also not the first to do it through sport. "I once did something right," Harry Angstrom says in John Updike's Rabbit, Run. "I played first-rate basketball. I really did. And after you're first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate." Updike was a sports fan, as many fiction writers, and their subjects, have been. Jay Gatsby is embroiled, loosely, in the 1919 World Series scandal, bullfights break out throughout Hemingway's work, and Moby-Dick—a significant presence in The Art of Fielding (Westish has a Melville statue on campus)—is, in the end, just a story about deep-sea hunting. And, of course, Matt Christopher's dog threw that no-hitter.
And yet sports are relatively underrepresented in the fiction pantheon, and will perhaps always be treated as a diversion, no matter the heavy literary names that are attached. "I was surprised that my friend had spent five years working on something so insubstantial," Keith Gessen, Harbach's friend and co-editor of the literary magazine n+1, said of his initial reaction to The Art of Fielding. (His opinion shifted, he said, after subsequent edits.) Harbach acknowledges the literary world's anti-sports snobbery, and pushes back against it: "There is an argument, that the American postmodern era began in the spring of 1973, when Steve Blass forgot how to throw a baseball," he writes in Fielding, lest we forget that his baseball book is a "serious" intellectual endeavor.
But I was struck by how effective the sports team was as both a plot and literary device. Baseball—and most good sports novels are about baseball—lends itself especially well. It is a team game, affording authors the ability to explore relationships between teammates, coaches, and opponents. But it also a game with extreme moments of aloneness: individual triumph and individual failure are what we remember. Harbach was a middle infielder, like Henry, but his career ended in high school. He claims to have done only a small bit of research for the book, but to my ear—one that has, admittedly, never heard the sounds of a Division III baseball locker room—Fielding rings true. (Gessen's own debut novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, was a story about the pursuit of a literary career. In short, the story was his own.) Here's Schwartz, giving the last pregame speech of his career:
Schwartz cast his gaze around the circle one more time. What came back was something beyond confidence, a sense that the game might as well already have happened. He didn't know if he was ready to play—his mind was elsewhere, sleepless and scattered and sentimental—but they sure were. If he was the Ahab of this operation, this tournament the target of his mania, then they were Fedallah's secret crew.
"You guys," he said softly, the respect in his voice legit, "are some scary motherfuckers."
Nobody even smiled at this, much less laughed; they just nodded and took the field.
Take that, Coach Taylor. And how about this, for a description of an athlete's life: "The cartilage in his knees was torn to shreds, the result of too many hours behind home plate, too many sets of squats with too much weight, the bar bowed over his shoulders like a comma." This squat was a pause not an ending. There would be many more sets, just like this one. The beauty, of course, is whether or not Harbach has accurately captured the world of small-college baseball hardly matters. We are in the realm of fiction, and baseball fanatics will never be completely satisfied. Writing to Bernard Malamud, upon the publication of his novel The Natural, Saul Bellow proclaimed that, "The baseball experts landing on your 'natural' with both feet, are … sinners against imagination."