The Art of Fielding

A Novel

Chad Harbach

Little, Brown: 528 pp., $25.99

In terms of conjuring a shorthand for a certain American innocence, there are few delivery systems quite so direct as baseball. Touched on by a library's worth of authors including John Updike, Stephen King and Don DeLillo, there's something about the game's deliberate pace, individual focus and enduring simplicity that seems irresistible to novelists. With that in mind, it was hard to imagine Chad Harbach's debut novel about a scrappy college baseball team offering much new to say about the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd or anything resembling Updike's "lyric little bandbox" in 2011.

And yet, that's what Harbach has done with "The Art of Fielding." Centering on an imaginary northern Wisconsin private school and its baseball star-in-the-making Henry Skrimshander, Harbach sidesteps much of the familiar mythmaking that can go along with spinning the American pastime into literature and instead delivers a rich, warmly human story that resonates even if you have no idea what a 6-4-3 double play looks like.

That's because instead of focusing on runs and hits, Harbach is most concerned with errors, that cruel statistic line unique to baseball that no one, not even an athlete touched by natural greatness, can ever eliminate. The issue for Henry, and the characters around him, is how recovery from these errors on and off the field gives shape to people's lives.

Henry is introduced as a gifted yet socially awkward shortstop and disciple of a handbook for middle infielders that gives the book its name, and his pursuit of perfection leaves him as something of a cipher in the early going. He's a repetitive motion machine full of workouts and rituals custom-built by his teammate and flawed mentor Mike Schwartz, determined to become bigger, stronger and more obsessed with the game than anyone else.

Before too many sports clichés can take root, the novel brushes aside Henry's rise from lanky prodigy to big league prospect and instead shares focus on those surrounding his development. First is his dorm-mate Owen, a brilliant, openly gay teammate whose effortless and near-messianic charisma feels like a nod to John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany," particularly as Harbach's sprawling yet intimately drawn story recalls Irving's immersive sense of detail.

Owen eventually catches the eye of Guert Affenlight, the college's middle-age president, who finds himself helplessly drawn into a career-threatening affair. And while the romance's September-May tilt feels somewhat predictable, there's a charming, clumsy sweetness to its development as affection rises around a deep-seated love of literature that becomes a hallmark of the whole novel.

Given that Harbach co-founded the smartly hip New York literary journal n+1, which recently published the hypnotically thorough study "What Was the Hipster?," it's reasonable to expect a bit of precociousness. As if to compensate for writing something as pedestrian as a baseball novel, Harbach surrounds his characters with an array of literary references, ranging from Greek classics to Raymond Carver. But even as some of these touchstones start straining credulity for even the most idealized student-athletes, the book's loving bond to Herman Melville becomes something deeper.

On top of many sly nods to the novelist throughout the story (even Henry's name is a sidelong glance at "Moby-Dick"), Harbach cleverly attaches Melville's biography to the wind-swept, lakeside college, providing him a physical presence right down to the team's mascot, the Harpooners. Affenlight is a respected Melville scholar, and his reputation-building dissertation on the homoerotic underpinnings of 19th century letters becomes something of a meta-narrative for "The Art of Fielding," especially in the taut, training room bond between Henry and Mike.

Harbach deftly ratchets up the drama as Henry spends much of the book battling a wrenching string of errors that will ring familiar to baseball fans who remember the bizarre struggles of Steve Sax, Chuck Knoblauch or Rick Ankiel. As he spirals into fury, depression and near-madness with the loss of his identity, the tangled relationships around him grow steadily more complicated. Tipping points are reached concerning Affenlight and his lover, the codependent athletic tie between Mike and Henry, and a sweet but messy relationship between Mike and Affenlight's sharp but rudderless daughter — the only female to rise out of Harbach's Melvillean "Paradise of Bachelors."

"Deep down … we all believe we're God," Henry finally admits as he struggles through the Harpooners' pivotal final game, an inevitable but still irresistible Cinderella story. Shaken, humbled and inarguably transformed, Henry is talking as much about the superstitious fan who freezes between pitches as he is the idea that even the most tightly controlled among us can lead a life free of errors. It's overcoming that fallacy where the real art lies for Henry — and for so many of us in the stands as well.

chris.barton@latimes.com