Chad Harbach's debut novel, The Art Of Fielding, is about baseball in the same way Moby-Dick is about whaling. Or in the same way Friday Night Lights is about football.
Which is to say, it is — and it isn't.
Harbach's protagonist, Henry Skrimshander, is a prodigal shortstop at a small, midwestern liberal arts college called Westish University. Henry is destined for the big leagues, until a debilitating mental slump lands him on the bench.
Henry's fall raises big questions about the things we chase in life — a baseball career, a young love, or a great white whale — and what happens when we fall short.
Melville In Mind
"Reading Moby-Dick was really a sort of transformative literary experience for me," Harbach tells NPR's Rachel Martin.
"All my life, I had been hearing about [Moby-Dick] spoken of in these sort of stern and forbidding ways," Harbach says of his time in college. "So I was sort of frightened to read it. Then I found, when I did read it, it was really this sort of bold and brash and funny and musical book that totally astounded me. I think I'm still trying to get over it a little bit."
That was in college. Not long after, Harbach set down his first notes for The Art Of Fielding. Over the next 10 years, when he wasn't working on n + 1, the influential literary magazine he co-founded in New York, he wrote. As he wrote out drafts in longhand, Melville's novel found its way into the story.
One of the main characters, Westish President Guert Affenlight, is a Melville fan.
"Forty years ago, when he was an undergraduate, he discovered a lost lecture Melville delivered at Westish," Harbach explains. "After Affenlight makes this discovery, the school kind of adopts Melville as their sort of mascot and personage."
The Westish athletic teams are called The Harpooners. The college erects a Melville statue on campus. And there are subtler appearances: Henry's surname, Skrimshander, comes from scrimshaw, a word that refers to handiwork made out of whale bones.
The Art Of 'Thoughtless Being'
Skrimshander ascends to NCAA stardom at Westish with the help of Mike Schwartz, a team captain for the Westish baseball team. Where college recruiters see a skinny, sunken-chested benchwarmer, Shwartz sees something else.
"Schwartz is a person who feels that he doesn't possess a kind of transcendent genius," Harbach says. "That's what he sees when Henry is out on the field."
Skrimshander, a student of the game, carries around a worn paperback by a fictional shortstop, also called The Art Of Fielding. He's memorized the book's numbered mantras, guidance like:
3. There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.
33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.
How does Skrimshander master the art of "thoughtless being?"
"It's kind of part and parcel of a real naive innocence on Henry's part," Harbach says. "Over the course of the novel — this is partly what the novel is about — he loses that innocence. He loses that kind of unconscious genius and has to try to figure out if he can get it back in a different way."
A Sudden Loss Of Genius
Named for a real-life Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher from the 1960s, Steve Blass disease is one way to describe Skrimshander's sudden loss of genius: One day, inexplicably, he is unable to cleanly field and throw a baseball.
"Right around the time that I started the book, there were several very, very good and prominent major league baseball players to whom this was happening," Harbach says.
Take the Yankee's Chuck Knoblauch. Knoblauch would field a routine grounder at second base and freeze, double-clutching, unable to throw to first.
"You could just see the wheels turning in his head when he would have to make that throw," Harbach says." I think it's rare that you see an athlete's consciousness exposed like that. The reason athletes are so boring in interviews is because it doesn't really behoove them to show us what's doing on their minds. So when that kind of naturally comes out, I think it can be very moving and weird."
But even the errorless ballplayer faces disappointment, the shortstop in Skrimshander's Art Of Fielding says:
212. It always saddens me to leave the field. Even fielding the final out to win the World Series, deep in the truest part of me, felt like death.
Of course, "fielding the final out" could just as easily mean "finishing 10 years of writing."
"In some ways I think I was very reluctant to let the book go, and was probably very frightened to finish it," Harbach says. "At the moment I'm at this point where I get to go out and talk to people about the book, so instead of having it be my own intensely private relationships with these characters, I get to talk about them with other people."
But the book tour, the dazzling-debut-novel-hype, the attention — Harbach knows these, too, are ephemeral pleasures.
"Soon, when I stop doing that and go back to work on a new thing, I think that will be a strange and emotional time," he says.
RACHEL MARTIN, Host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Rachel Martin. Chad Harbach's acclaimed debut novel is called "The Art of Fielding." And as the Paris Review pointed out, it's about baseball in the same way "Moby Dick" is about whaling, which is to say it is and it isn't. Harbach's protagonist, Henry Skrimshander, is a prodigal shortstop at a small Midwestern liberal arts college. Henry is destined for the big leagues until a debilitating mental slump lands him on the bench.
Henry's fall raises big questions about the things we chase in life: a baseball career, a young love or a great white whale, and what happens when we fall short. Chad Harbach is also a cofounder and editor at the literary magazine n+1, and he joins us now from the University of Virginia. Chad, welcome to the show.
CHAD HARBACH: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So we mentioned "Moby Dick" right out of the gate. Herman Melville's novel, figures heavily into yours. How so?
HARBACH: One of the main characters in the book, who's the president of this small college - his name is Guert Affenlight - 40 years ago, when he was an undergraduate, he discovered a lost lecture that Melville had delivered at Westish.
MARTIN: This is the college which is the setting for the novel.
HARBACH: Yeah. And so after Affenlight makes this discovery, the school kind of adopts Melville as their mascot and personage, and they change the name of their teams to the Harpooners, they build a statue of Melville on the campus. So he just becomes like a really integral part of this setting.
MARTIN: Even though Melville really had nothing to do with the Midwest.
HARBACH: No. No, not at all.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: But you're something of an armchair scholar when it comes to Melville, I understand.
HARBACH: I guess so, or at least a lover of Melville. When I was in college, I took a seminar. It was really a sort of transformative literary experience for me, you know, mostly because we read this book, "Moby Dick," which all my life I had been hearing about, spoken of in these sort of stern and forbidding ways. And so I was sort of frightened to read it. And then I found when I did read it that it was really this bold and brash and funny and musical book that just totally astounded me and, you know, I'm still trying to get over it a little bit.
MARTIN: So enter Henry Skrimshander. Part of what makes Henry so good at this game is that he's really a student of baseball. He actually carries around a worn paperback that's also called "The Art of Fielding," although this is not your book, it's a fictional book by a fictional shortstop. Henry has actually memorized the book's mantras. I'd love if you could read a few of those baseball mantras, if you would.
HARBACH: (Reading) Number 26: The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects the stillness and his teammates respond. Number 59: To field a ground ball must be considered a generous act and an act of comprehension. The true fielder lets the path of the ball become his own path, thereby comprehending the ball and dissipating the self, which is the source of all suffering and poor defense. Number three: There are three stages; thoughtless being, thought, return to thoughtless being.
MARTIN: So it must be said, this is very baseball Zen.
HARBACH: Yes, exactly.
MARTIN: I mean, the idea of thoughtless being, when you lose yourself in an activity that you love. What about Henry allows him to master that?
HARBACH: Well, I think it's kind of part of parcel of a real sort of naÃ¯ve innocence on Henry's part. He's a kind of lower middle-class kid from South Dakota. All he's ever known or cared about is this feeling that he gets out on the field. You know, of course, over the course of the novel, and this is partly what the novel is about, Henry loses that innocence. He makes a single errant throw - his first errant throw in years - and it hits his roommate, Owen, who's sitting on the bench, in the face. And this kind of triggers a kind of psychosomatic doubt in Henry. He just stops being able to throw the ball and he loses that kind of unconscious genius out on the field and has to try to figure out if he can get it back in a different way.
MARTIN: And we should point out that this was a real thing in baseball, right?
HARBACH: Yes. Right around the time, actually, that I started the book, there were several very, very good and prominent Major League Baseball players to whom this was happening. Chuck Knoblauch, very famously. He was playing second base for the Yankees. You could just see the wheels turning in his head when he would have to make that throw. Like Henry in the book, he would be double clutching and hesitant about it. And I think it's rare that you see an athlete's consciousness exposed like that. That, yeah, the reason athletes are so boring in interviews is because it doesn't really behoove them to, you know, to show us what's going on in their minds. So when that just kind of naturally comes out, I think it could be very moving and weird.
MARTIN: And that's kind of a central tension throughout the book. I want to ask you about David Foster Wallace. You site Wallace as one of your big influences. And he said once that he focused on tennis in his novel "Infinite Jest" because it was the one sport that he knew well enough to be able to convey in writing why it was so beautiful to him. Is it the same for you in baseball?
HARBACH: I think so. Baseball was the first game that I learned. I remember when I was, I don't know, 2 years old or something, my father propping me up against the couch so that he could pitch Nerf balls at me and I could swing at them before I could hardly even stand up on my own. So it was the game that I was brought up in. It's a team game, but there's something very lonely about baseball because each player is kind of out there on their own. If you're the batter you're all alone. I f you're the fielder you're all alone. So I think that lends itself to a novelist's way of thinking.
MARTIN: I'm speaking with Chad Harbach. His new novel is called "The Art of Fielding." We should mention that you started writing this more than a decade ago. How would the novel be different if you had started it a couple years ago, two, three years ago?
HARBACH: Yeah, wow. I mean, it might be totally different or I might have started an entirely different book, because what's interesting to me about the book is that it was conceived of at a time when I was 24, 25 years old, and so it's really a book, like, conceived out of a very sort of youthful mindset, but then it's a book that I finished as an adult. And I don't think I could replicate that scheme anymore.
MARTIN: I understand you also wrote the book longhand?
HARBACH: Yeah. I mean, I'm a big believer in...
MARTIN: As in with paper and pen?
HARBACH: Paper - yeah, paper and pen.
MARTIN: I can't even wrap my head around what that's like.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HARBACH: Well, I think it's - you know, I really recommend it. And it's - I find writing on a computer kind of paralyzing because you have this screen in front of you, and I kind of wind up turning that screen into a sort of performance art project where I type some things on the screen and then I go back and shift them around. And you just have this sort of perpetually changing screen instead of what you want to have which is an accumulation of pages.
MARTIN: I want to return to one key passage from Henry's version of "The Art of Fielding," which is the guidebook that Henry carries around. On page 306 of your book, can you read that bit?
HARBACH: (Reading) Number 212: It always saddens me to leave the field. Even fielding the final out to win the World Series deep in the truest part of me felt like death.
MARTIN: That's a powerful passage. And it gets at something crucial at the heart of your book, something about understanding that there can be this ephemeral nature to the things that we hold most dear. I wonder if Henry overcomes that feeling in the end?
HARBACH: I guess part of what's happening is that over the course of the book, Henry is discovering that, both with the loss of his ability to throw and then, you know, the potential loss of some of his dearest friendships, this notion that things can be and in fact always really are ephemeral and fleeting and his success in the future depends upon how well he can understand that and still move on.
MARTIN: Chad Harbach. His new novel is "The Art of Fielding." He spoke to us from the studios at the University of Virginia. Chad, thanks so much.
HARBACH: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.