If Chad Harbach's much-vaunted debut novel is too well-mannered, too readily digestible, to be called the Moby-Dick of baseball, Melville's whale certainly lurks beneath, and quite frequently breaches, its surface. On the strength of his sublime natural gifts as a "shortstop" –the pivotal infielder positioned between second and third base – Henry Skrimshander, an unassuming South Dakotan 17-year-old, secures a place at Westish College, a small, "slightly decrepit" liberal arts school "in the crook of the thumb of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin". As an undergraduate at Westish some 40 years earlier, its current President, Guert Affenlight, had unearthed a document that proved Melville gave a lecture there in 1880. That furnishes Affenlight with a lifelong enthusiasm, the Small Quad with a statue of Melville, and Harbach with the sound narrative rationale for loading his book with enough Melville references to sink a Nantucket whaleship.
The baseball team are called the Harpooners. The college tie bears a repeating pattern of tiny harpoon-brandishing whalemen, made (in a nice bit of seeing) to "lie supine" when twisted into a half-Windsor. There are Melville keychains and a black T-shirt listing Melville's travels like dates in a stadium tour. Tattoos of sperm whales are worn both by Affenlight and his wayward daughter Pella. A "skrimshander", as students of whale-based handicrafts will not need reminding, is someone who carves patterns into whalebone; our "Skrimmer" has team-mates called Starblind and Quisp. The Westish students' bar of choice is called Bartleby's.
The main thrust of The Art of Fielding concerns the efforts of the Harpooners, under the charismatic leadership of their captain Mike Schwartz, to turn around their "crappy" record and make it to the nationals. Inasmuch as the novel is a study of men in pursuit of an elusive goal, of camaraderie at the service of a collective obsession, Melville is, of course, an apposite influence. Under Mike's guidance Skrimshander's talent blooms, spurring the Harpooners on to prevail against ever more formidable opponents.
Scouts for the pro leagues have begun to take an interest, and Henry is on the point of equalling the national collegiate record for consecutive errorless wins when a throw goes off-course and – in a distant echo of the catastrophic turning-point in Richard Ford's Independence Day – lands with a crunch in his team-mate Owen's face. Henry's game falls apart, and for the remainder of the novel he stands in Ahab-like contention with the white whale of his self-doubt.
Meanwhile Schwartz has his own private agonies: "The only thing he knew how to do was motivate other people. Which amounted to nothing, in the end. Manipulation, playing with dolls... Those who cannot do, coach."
The difficulty with the book's debt to Melville is akin to Henry's dependence on Schwartz: it both liberates their potential and deprives them of air. Clearly, with the sundry Melvilleania, Harbach is poking justifiable fun at the literary heritage industry, but at times the book is guilty of what it seeks to satirise: the fetishisation of an influence at the expense of its more subtle diffusion. For instance, the fantastical climax, set on the lake overlooked by Melville's stony gaze, provides a pleasing jolt in tonal terms, but you know that all considerations of psychological realism have been cast aside in favour of shapeliness. The scene is there because it fits the novel's schema: the final piece of a jigsaw.
The effect of this overdeterminism is (sometimes) to vitiate, or at least blunt, our responsiveness to the novel's many virtues. It is cunningly constructed: one of the things that makes it so infuriatingly readable is the assurance with which Harbach entangles his five main characters' fates, his responsiveness to the plot's ripples of repercussion. The baseball sequences are terrific: expertly paced, often exciting and fairly self-explanatory to the lay reader. To play shortstop is to be the still point in baseball's turning world, and Harbach captures precisely the strangely becalmed grace that sets sportsmen like Henry apart. He "didn't seem to move faster than any other decent shortstop would, and yet he arrived instantly, impeccably... as if time slowed down for him alone."
Which makes Henry's loss of form all the more affecting. It's one of the novel's master-strokes that Owen, warming the bench in the dugout, should fail to defend himself against Henry's errant ball because he has his nose buried in a book. Sports vs. words: it's language, self-consciousness, that estranges Henry from his talent.
As Affenlight jokes to Owen, reading is "a dangerous pastime", inimical at some level to the cognitive blank of true sporting genius. At its best, when its pattern-making responds more organically to the characters' realities, The Art of Fielding is very good indeed. In an early, game, we learn that the Harpooners' "aged scoreboard" is missing a letter: "WESTISH 6 VI ITOR 2". Four hundred pages later, when the Harpooners are competing against swanky Amherst in the nationals, it's noted that one of the opposing team's cheerleaders has failed to show up, so that their "oversize purple T-shirts... spelled out A-M-H-E-R-T in white letters." Again, the missing S, for Skrimshander, the Harpooners' absent hero: it's a lovely, subtle, moving touch.
Nat Segnit's novel 'Pub Walks in Underhill Country' is published by Fig Tree