The Art of Fielding

The Art of Fielding
Chad Harbach
Fourth Estate, 512pp, £16.99

Henry Skrimshander, one of the central characters in Chad Harbach's capacious and thoroughly engaging first novel, is a skinny kid from South Dakota transplanted to Westish College, a "slightly decrepit liberal arts school on the western shore of Lake Michigan". He has been brought there by Mike Schwartz, the bearish catcher on the college's chronically underperforming baseball team, the Harpooners.

Schwartz recruited Henry after seeing him play shortstop in a "no-name tournament" somewhere in the Midwest:

Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond . . . Where the kid's thoughts were . . . Schwartz couldn't say. He remembered a line from Professor Eglantine's poetry class: Expressionless, expresses God.

Henry is much less likely to quote Robert Lowell than his mentor. His bible is a book also entitled The Art of Fielding, a collection of aphorisms by a (fictitious) baseball player named Aparicio Rodriguez, "the greatest defensive shortstop who ever lived". A typical entry reads: "The shortstop is a source of stillness at the centre of the defence. He projects this stillness and his team-mates respond."

Schwartz puts Henry through a training regime that would have made Stakhanov quail, and the aim of which is the "production of brute efficiency out of natural genius". (There are echoes here of the terrifyingly protracted drills endured by the inmates of the Enfield Tennis Academy in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, a novel that Harbach has acknowledged as an influence on his writing. That influence is discernible in Harbach's themes rather than in his prose: unlike Wallace, who stress-tests his sentences with alarming accumulations of detail, he knows just when to stop.)

Henry soon replaces Lev Tennant as starting shortstop. Instantly, he projects an Aparicio Rodriguez-like stillness at the heart of the defence and his fellow Harpooners respond by winning some games. He embarks on an error-less streak in which he equals a record set years earlier by his hero, and attracts the attention of scouts from the professional leagues.

Characteristically for a novel that is as much about the books people read as it is about the games that they play, the team's name pays homage to Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. When he was an undergraduate at Westish in the late Sixties, the college president, Guert Affenlight, discovered a lost lecture of Melville's tucked between two magazines in the library. Ever since, the school has been home to a "thriving cult of Melvilleania" that extends to its sporting endeavours.

If Henry is the still centre of the baseball team, then the still centre of the plot is Owen Dunne, in his own description Henry's "gay mulatto room-mate" and an occasional batter for the Harpooners (though he spends most of his time reading books on the bench). Owen is both the cynosure of the decisive action in the novel and a means for Harbach to show off his flair for the kind of zinging dialogue that will no doubt appeal to producers of the better class of TV miniseries.

Henry's perfect streak comes to an end when he misdirects a throw and puts Owen in hospital (inevitably, Owen had been paying attention not to the game but to the book in his lap). The episode upsets the equilibrium of all the main characters, between whom the narrative point of view is parcelled out: Henry has a prolonged attack of the yips; Guert becomes infatuated with Owen; and Schwartz falls for Affenlight's daughter Pella, who is fleeing a disastrous marriage.

The almost preternatural assurance with which Harbach meets the challenge of writing a multivocal, psychologically realist novel has led to comparisons of The Art of Fielding with Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. But this is a much less troubled, anxious book than that was. If one must make a comparison with a novel by a member of the generation ahead of Harbach's, then it should be with Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot. That, too, is a sophisticated campus novel in which the author makes his peace with the idea that there is no shame in trying to charm the reader.