The Art of Fielding is a story of failure: one epic choke and a host of smaller disappointments that weigh on the five lives at the center of Chad Harbach’s ambitious debut novel. Henry Skrimshander — the gawky, blank-faced star of Westish College’s overachieving baseball squad — is a flawless shortstop, the definition of defensive perfection. He’s headed for greatness, or at least a major-league contract; big-time scouts and agents are starting to hover. But then…something happens. Henry’s brain betrays him. He loses confidence, botching even the most routine throws. He has no idea why, and nothing seems to help. Over the course of 500 pages, Harbach spins this simple premise into a wide-ranging book about desire and loss, friendship and loneliness. It’s about baseball, of course, but also campus life, dishwashing, and Moby-Dick (you’ll find yourself reaching for a copy to brush up on the famous ”Lee Shore” chapter).
Most of Harbach’s characters are desperately chasing something. Henry’s mentor, Mike Schwartz, covets a national championship and a law career. Westish president Guert Affenlight is infatuated with Henry’s brilliant roommate, Owen Dunne. Affenlight’s daughter, Pella, longs for a fresh start after a bad marriage. Their struggles get tangled up in and amplified by Henry’s collapse and make for a rich, engrossing story. It’s a shame, then, that the characters themselves feel underdrawn — flat and inscrutable rather than tangible and alive. But despite that one big weakness, Fielding mostly works. Harbach has a talent for atmosphere, pulling you into his vivid portrait of campus angst. And his themes are powerful and universal: Everyone grapples with crises of confidence and a terror of failure. Harbach might not dig deep enough into his characters’ heads, but he knows how to get into a reader’s. B+