Harbach’s novel failed to live up to the concept – though that’s probably due to the fact that the concept would never have been able to support Harbach’s story in any case. Surely not at 520 pages. We are left with the tale of a skinny, seventeen year old South Dakota shortstop named Henry Skrimshander, who is a whizz of a fielder, but can’t hit a lick. He’s taken under his wing by a burly catcher, Mike Schwartz, and brings him to his college, Westish, having convinced the coach that he can be a great player with hard work. He’s a natural. He’s roomed up with Owen Dunne, also on the baseball team (as a sub), who freely advises Henry that he’ll be Henry’s “gay mulatto roommate”.
Henry is a devotee of fictional Hall-of-Famer Aparicio Rodriguez, who wrote a book not so coincidentally named, The Art of Fielding. This is Henry’s bible and he carries it everywhere with him, constantly going over passages. It’s a book that imparts the knowledge of playing shortstop, and ostensibly the art of life. Henry never seems to grasp this aspect of the book however.
Mike sees in Henry the athlete that he knows he can never be. Mike’s talent rises to a certain level, while Henry’s is one of the gifted one’s – an athlete that can play like a work of art only because he has become a machine. He’s nickname his glove Zero, because he never makes errors. That’s the paradox at the center of Henry’s downfall, which is at the core of the novel, with all the other subplots crashing around to make things interesting – or messy and overlong depending on your point of view. There’s the gay attraction between the college president and Owen. There’s the affair between the Presidents daughter Pella and Mike. There’s the sexual liaison – more an intervention – between Henry and Pella. Along the way, certain threads are just plain dropped: The visit by Pella’s husband and soon to be ex. He shows up and he’s gone never to be referred to again. The flirting with President Affenlight by Owen’s mother, is similarly treated. Better to not have added these in at all?
Baseball reflects the art of living? The standard for this is Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. Harbach’s novel is readable and forgettable.