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Culturebox: The Perfect Game

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The Perfect Game
Chad Harbach's baseball novel evokes an American paradise.
By Judith Shulevitz
Posted Monday, Sept. 5, 2011, at 10:13 AM ET

Chad Harbach. Click image to expand.The dominant emotion in The Art of Fielding--the much-anticipated, because expensively acquired, first novel by Chad Harbach, a founding editor of the literary magazine n+1--is nostalgia for life at a small liberal arts college. Westish College is portrayed as a paradise that students are terrified to leave. Its pastoral Wisconsin campus faces Lake Michigan, and the place is a triumph of old-school wholesomeness. This good-enough undergraduate institution is filled with truly good people: a deeply literary president who is personally admirable, even though he has fallen in love with a student; a gruff chef in charge of dining services who is committed to cooking actually good food; a brilliant, gay, mixed-race roommate who takes his hick of a straight roommate shopping for more socially acceptable jeans; a baseball team captain who is a genuine leader of men, and so on. Westish's architecture reinforces one's sense that the place is a contemporary archaism. To the amazement of a freshman who has only ever seen a rural community college before, the buildings match, "each four or five stories high and made of squat gray weatherbeaten stone, with deepset windows and peaked, gabled roofs." This, he thinks, is "college in a movie."

Actually, it's more like boarding school in a young adult novel from at least 60 years ago, if not earlier, before such novels became mostly pseudo-mythic fantasies or grim accounts of social dysfunction. Though suffused with this oddly charming, upbeat schoolboy-novel quality, formally The Art of Fielding must be said to be a baseball novel. It tells the story of Henry Skrimshander, a scrawny shortstop from South Dakota with the uncommon ability to field without making a single error, and Mike Schwartz, the huge, honorable, classics-reading Westish baseball team captain who discovers Henry and gets him recruited to Westish. There Henry puts the team in line for a national championship for the first time in its history. Secondary plot developments do push the campus back into the foreground, though. These include the president's affair, which is with Henry's kindly gay roommate (the one who takes him shopping). Another involves the return of the president's daughter to Westish after a disastrous early marriage and the relationship she starts with Mike Schwartz. Coloring everything is Henry and Mike's fear of having to leave their safe haven and take their places in a remote and not entirely imaginable world.

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Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.

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