T he Art of Fielding, the debut novel by American author Chad Harbach, co-founder of the New York-based literary journal n + 1, begins by appropriating an epigraph from the Extracts section of Moby-Dick. Melville attributes it to a verse from a Nantucket whaling song; in The Art of Fielding it becomes a verse from a Westish College fight song. Harbach slyly changes two words so that the verse is more applicable to baseball than to whaling.
This is the first of the novel's many references to Melville and Moby-Dick. Westish, the fictional, century-old liberal arts college where the novel is set, is "that little school in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin." It has undergone a branding makeover in the 1970s at the behest of the school's trustees, following a belated literary discovery involving Melville and his visit to the college in the late 19th century during which he praised the beauty of its location on the shores of Lake Michigan. . The names of the school's sports teams were duly changed from the Sugar Maples to the Harpooners. A Melville statue was erected on campus, gazing out toward the water. Mellevilleania even found its way into the school's songs.
Exactly why Harbach wants his reader to think of Moby-Dick is not clear; nor is it especially prudent to encourage comparisons between one's first book and what is arguably the great American novel. To use a sports analogy, it is akin to a young hockey player wearing the number 99. If that young hockey player has difficulty stick-handling, the homage could be perceived as ironic, comical – or worse.
The two novels have length in common. While one is about a dead industry in America, whaling, the other is purportedly about a faded and, with the recent outing of the steroid era, sullied American national pastime. Baseball has long been replaced in the American popular imagination by football. But despite its relative decline, baseball maintains a legion of fans. Of these, there must be many an aesthete and intellectual claiming to be attracted to the game's finer points. But the cultured and literary baseball fan eager to be taken deep into the unknown world of Division III college baseball will be disappointed by The Art of Fielding. The book is too unfocused, heavily plotted and weighted down by the author's many contrivances, idiosyncrasies, indulgences and wearisome, not to mention unnecessarily topical, preoccupations.
The novelfollows three Westish students, as well as the school's president, over the course of three years. Its enigmatic central character is Henry Skrimshander, a shortstop with major-league potential. He is discovered one summer after a game in a "no name tournament" by the catcher on the opposing team, a Westish sophomore named Mike Schwartz who acts as an unofficial scout for the college's "bungling baseball program."
Henry takes to the diamond after his team's loss to practice fielding grounders. Schwartz is so awestruck by the shortstop's brilliant display that he is compelled to think of a phrase from a Robert Lowell poem. Under Schwartz's tutelage, Henry begins to live up to his potential, and almost single-handedly turns the Westish College Harpooners from perennial losers to national contenders.
A curious world is Harbach's novel, where sports agents effortlessly integrate French expressions into conversation and college baseball players do the same with Latin, read Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling in the dugout and dispute Middle East politics in the locker room. One might be tempted to think Harbach is writing satire or farce if he didn't persistently try to mine his characters and situations for poignancy.
In Moby-Dick, Melville often digresses from his simple plot to expound eloquently on various facets of the commercial whaling industry. Harbach becomes so wrapped up in the twists and turns of his elaborate plot, and the frequently inane repartee of his slippery characters, that he rarely allows himself such digressions, so by the book's end his subject, baseball, seems incidental.
Robert Sternberg is a baseball fan and a fiction writer. He teaches English at Toronto's Humber College.