Originally published Saturday, September 24, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Book review

'The Art of Fielding': Win, lose, improvise

A review of Chad Harbach's debut novel, "The Art of Fielding," an American story of failure with a twist: It's about winners who fall flat on their faces, then regroup to fight again.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'The Art of Fielding'

by Chad Harbach

Little, Brown, 509 pp., $29.95

If the great American narrative is success, why are so many of the great American novelists obsessed with failure? J.D. Salinger; Philip Roth; Junot Diaz; Anne Tyler; Jonathan Franzen. Here are poets of unraveling. The short answer is we need them. In a country drubbed constantly by the visuals of triumphal plenitude, they remind us we are not alone when we catch a bad break.

In his debut novel, "The Art of Fielding," Chad Harbach places himself firmly in this camp of Americana. Unlike so many young writers, who herald the loser as a kind of everyman, this is a book full of winners. Who are losing. Baseball stars, sought-after academics, beautiful young women and talented students all fall flat on their face across this novel. And bless him, Harbach doesn't indulge an ounce of schadenfreude.

Harbach's generosity is both that, and a lesson in the falseness of appearances. Take Henry Skrimshander, the novel's star shortstop hero.

"The Art of Fielding" unfolds at a prestigious, fictional Wisconsin school called Westish, and if any of us attended we would have envied Henry. The young man's athletic skill makes his ability seem effortless. He is poised for a major-league career.

Narrating in a close-third person, however, Harbach reveals how provisional Henry's achievements feel. Raised by a working-class family in South Dakota, his presence at Westish almost a fluke, Henry possesses the creeping dread of someone who knows how quickly something can be taken from him. When Henry finally makes an error after 52 games of perfect play, he punishes his body mercilessly, doing pull-ups at four in the morning until his arms hang like brutalized meat hooks.

"The Art of Fielding" is a very strange book. On the one hand, it is a deeply sporty novel. Many of its set pieces are baseball games, which Harbach narrates beautifully. Its characters eat protein bars, do skullcrushers in the gym and run stairs in the morning hours until their legs quiver. They fall asleep to rap music.

But thanks to its large cast, this is not all Harbach gives us. "The Art of Fielding" jumps from one character to the next, from Henry's hard-luck mentor, Mike Schwartz, the baseball team's catcher, to the college's closeted president, Guert Affenlight, who stumbles headlong into an affair with a young male student. The only occasionally false note in this book comes in the erratic character of Affenlight's daughter, who returns home after her marriage collapses.

One-by-one this book's entire cast suffers some setback or another, and Harbach shows them doing that most American thing: Improvising.

They juggle and they regroup. The novel takes its title from a book written by a fictional St. Louis Cardinal shortstop. Thankfully, we get precious little from this device — otherwise, it would get cute. But what Harbach does give us reminds, as if the novel's neatly strung narrative didn't, how much our fates are entwined with those of around us.

In this way, "The Art of Fielding" recalls Jonathan Franzen's novel "Freedom," a book that asked whether America's aggressive notion of freedom and its idea of the family are in fact compatible. Harbach, happily, isn't here to stage manage our thinking so forcefully. This is an absorbing and autumnal novel set in a place — the academy — and about a game — baseball — that have both been written to death. That Harbach makes it feel brand new feels like talent. If this novel is any clue, however, he must have hit a few bad hops along the way.

John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of "The Tyranny of Email" (Scribner).

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