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The Art of Fielding, By Chad Harbach

It's a very good swing, just not quite knocked out of the park

Fifteen years ago, Bobby Thomson's hyperbolically named "Shot Heard Round the World" – a league-winning home run that was likely rather better heard in Upper Manhattan than Uttar Pradesh – set in motion Don DeLillo's epic Underworld, and the search for a pattern of meaning in a half-century of cultural flotsam.

The Pulitzer-nominated work was revered in the States as a Great American Novel, yet here it was often dismissed as an impenetrable snoozefest: for Americans, the first 60 pages were a powerful evocation of the mysticism of their national sport; for Brits, they signalled that the remainder might not be worth the wrist-swelling agony of holding an 827-page book.

Yet baseball is not entirely a turn-off in this country: the cinematic adaptation of Michael Lewis's non-fiction book Moneyball did surprisingly well at the UK box office last year. This may have been because the action was rooted in personalities rather than the intricacies of play on the diamond, or it may have had something to do with the involvement of Brad Pitt and Aaron Sorkin. Though it lacks the latter pairing, Chad Harbach's debut novel has plenty in common with the former sensibility.

The Art of Fielding was greeted with a fanfare in the US, to the extent that the story of Harbach's hefty $650,000 advance was given the Vanity Fair extended-essay treatment. But is it worthy of such exhortation?

It gets its impetus from a single incident from the field of play, when promising Westish College shortstop Henry Skrimshander's throw to first base is blown off course and square into the face of his room-mate Owen. The reverberations are felt by five principal characters, from Skrimshander's physical meltdown to the flowering of an unlikely love between Owen and the college president.

Perhaps most impressive is that each character feels fully fleshed, and not just the leads: Owen's mother appears only fleetingly, but feels utterly alive. And through these characters, the author is able to tally the pros and cons of philosophies from liberalism to nihilism, and address meaningful questions, of social mores, ambition and the matter of will versus destiny.

Harbach has a light writing style – occasionally too light, when the novel veers into melodrama – but there is depth, too. The shadows of Melville and Moby Dick loom over Westish and manifest in the monomania of two of the principals. Harbach leans on Emerson and Whitman, too, to score moments of high emotion without mawkishness. All of which feels of a piece with a novel set in an Ivy League-style seat of classical learning.

Yet that monomania is also a problem: once Skrimshander has suffered his mishap, the characterisation falters. His interior monologue all but disappears, leaving us with a shell of a man who is also unfortunately a cliché: one of those who have gone down in baseball lore as afflicted with the "yips", a condition whereby a player simply cannot play any more. It's only after a hulking contrivance that Skrimshander gets his game back – the self-same contrivance that tritely resolves the discovery of the headmaster's relationship with his pupil.

This is by no means a Great American Novel, then. The themes are lightweight and the conclusion too mid-afternoon, made-for-TV movie. But it is a Very Good American Novel, and an impressively ambitious debut that deserves to be read by more than just the baseball-loving market.