OK, baseball can be boring. It's a sport where an all-star can play for 20 minutes just standing there. But it's also a sport of pure, thrilling, gorgeous human potential -- and that's the territory Chad Harbach pursues in his endearing first novel, "The Art of Fielding" (Little Brown, 512 pages, $25.99).
Grounding the novel is a small Wisconsin college called Westish, a place that at first seems like a liberal arts joke: Its baseball team is called the "Harpooners," due to the college's one lecture by Herman Melville back in the 19th century, and even the players read Emerson and use terms like "Homeric."
These are Gatsby-an, Thoreau-ian ballplayers, and they are adorable. Consider Henry Scrimshaw, the scrawny machine of an athlete who by his junior year becomes an honest-to-goodness major league prospect. His good fortune is due to hard work, pursuit of perfection and an undying devotion to Mike Schwartz, the beefy Jewish bomber who takes the "Skrimmer," as Henry is called, under his muscular wing.
The efforts that Skrimmer and Schwartzy put into their team's dream season give the novel a joyful, steroids-be-damned structure -- and Skrimmer's epic, soul-crushing slump gives it tragedy.
But the book is much, much more than baseball fan fiction. That's because Harbach opens his formidable lens beyond pitch-perfect male bonding to include such characters as Westish's recently uncloseted college president and his troubled daughter, Pella -- both of whom fall foolishly in love, while only one of them lives to regret it.
That all its characters are crafted with an ardor equal to any ninth-inning at-bat makes "The Art of Fielding" a marvel. Sure, it trips here and there with the first-time novelist's mistakes -- such as unneeded love triangles, laughably placed etymological asides and some graduate school indulgences like a character musing that his lover "would make a first-rate pedagogue." The novel also ends with a cobbled-together post-mortem that doesn't quite feel right.
But all that is easily forgiven as the book works Skrimmer, Schwartzy and Pella toward the inevitably heartbreaking uncertainties of adulthood -- which all come to a head at the Harpooners' championship game. Who wins, ultimately, is beside the point, especially in the presence of lines like this: "Each of us, down deep, believes that the whole world issues from his own precious body, like images projected from a tiny slide. ... And then, deeper down, each of us knows that we're wrong."
Take that kind of prose and put it into the head of compelling characters playing their hearts out, on and off the baseball field, and you've basically got "The Art of Fielding." Many first novels swing for the fence; Harbach's novel is the fence. Baseball fan or no, you should read it.
- Scott Muskin of Minneapolis is the author of "The Annunciations of Hank Meyerson, Mama's Boy and Scholar."