It is probably hard to enjoy this new big novel from America without some understanding of the shortstop’s position on the baseball field. But that is easily remedied, thanks to YouTube, where searching for ‘shortstop, fielding’ arouses multiple videos that compete for attention, with stars of the game in their infield position between second and third base, taking ground balls hit at, near, or even away from them, scooping them up, throwing to first base for the out: something the shortstop does six or more times in a game. Besides the catcher, who largely stays put, it is the most demanding field position in baseball, and if you’re going to write a novel about a peerless fielder (the commonplace, in baseball fiction, is to write about a hitter who crushes home runs), then this is the position you’d choose; where when one excels, nothing in baseball is more glamorous, but failure is glaring and ugly.
In The Art of Fielding, the wondrous young shortstop, Henry Skrimshander of Westish College in the agrarian northeast of Wisconsin, starts to stink up the place, just as his undergraduate team is getting good for the first time in its sporting history. Suddenly he can’t throw anymore, when the ball is hit to him, whereas previously he was perfection itself — no errors, no missteps, nothing but the ‘same easy grace, same gunshot report’ following arrival at the place where the ball always went, ‘instantly, impeccably, as if he had some foreknowledge’. How will Henry’s team fare in the wake of his collapse?
It’s always said of baseball, or any sports, novels, that they are about more than the game itself — they are about life; but there is a hefty element of baseball spread over these 500 pages, in all its intricate and revealing plays, slang and jargon (a widespread term, in America, for minutiae that outsiders can’t comprehend is ‘inside baseball’).
What isn’t about baseball has the whiff of death to it, even though the book reports only one fatality by its finish, with memento mori scattered through the pages. Playing baseball, or sport, tells us ‘we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not’. A great shortstop hates to leave the field, even when the championship is won, because ‘deep in the truest part’ of him it feels ‘like death’. For with the ambition and obsession all these characters share, the only thing that’s assured, we learn again and again, is our end.
The other thing filling this book is Melvilliana, from a small moment in the (fictional) college’s 19th-century history that brought the New England author of Moby-Dick, once, to campus. The baseball team are the Harpooners — odd for a college on the shore of Lake Michigan — the president, who looms very large in Harbach’s story, is a scholar of Melville and his American contemporaries; the more steeped the reader is in Moby-Dick, Typee, and other works, the greater his relishing the many allusions, some overt, others sly, throughout The Art of Fielding: a title, incidentally, that comes not from Melville but from the philosophical essay Henry always carries with him, by the famed shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez, who surprisingly for a Venezuelan professional athlete writes a beautiful, serene English of aphorisms like ‘The shortstop is a source of stillness … he projects this stillness and his teammates respond,’ or, ‘To field a ground ball must be considered a generous act and an act of comprehension.’
Harbach is a first novelist working skilfully with some of the archetypes of American literature — the campus novel, the Midwestern small-town or young man’s coming-of-age story, the shadow of Herman Melville who, to some, began it all — and his hands, unlike Henry’s, are nimble from start to end. That the melancholy, or sadness, it aspires toward isn’t as real as the humour, the pleasures of the summer game it elegantly describes, only means, as the great man wrote in ‘The Lee Shore’ (cited, though not quoted, at the end), that ‘Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable; deep memories yield no epitaphs.’