Set on a small, division III college campus in Wisconsin, Chad Harbach's novel focuses on a tightly connected cast of characters living out an unprecedented baseball season and unexpected life altering events. Henry Skrimshander is an extraordinary shortstop just shy of breaking his hero's record for all time consecutive games without an error. Mike Schartz is the team captain, battling crippling overuse injuries, a catcher who recognized Henry's perfection and potential and recruited Henry to Westish College, and who is the inspirational backbone of the team. Owen Dunne is Henry's roommate, a fellow baseball player with a mellow Zen attitude towards life, a sometime activist, an outstanding student, and a beautiful, appealing gay man. Guert Affenlight is the president of Westish College who has fallen in love for perhaps the first time in his life and who is also having a bit of an existential crisis in his life. Pella Affenlight is Guert's twenty-something daughter who has left the husband she ran off with while still in high school and moved back home with the intention of changing her life, how though she knows not. None of the characters' lives are going quite the way they expect either on the diamond or off of it. Each of them is having an existential crisis and they will have to find a way to adjust to the curve balls they're each facing.
Coming to Westish College as a scrawny freshman with an unparalleled feel for shortstop, Henry spends the next three years in Mike Schwartz's orbit, training hard, bulking up, and bringing his batting up to snuff to match his absolutely perfect, unthinking fielding abilities. Henry hasn't made a fielding error in forever, perhaps ever, if naming his glove Zero is any indication. So when, on the verge of breaking out, matching his hero's accomplishment for error free games, and now that the major league scouts have discovered him and are talking obscene amounts of money, Henry throws a ball that veers off course and smashes sickeningly into his roommate's head, it sends his whole life into a tailspin and starts the major events of the novel into motion. All of a sudden Henry can't focus on anything but the error, crippled by his loss of confidence, choking in the field every subsequent game. And without his firm belief in himself as a baseball player, who is he really?
This is very much a coming of age novel. Failure, fear, and an inability to dare threaten to push several characters off the sharp cusp of an undreamed of future. Henry is not the only one paralysed by his fear of falling short of expectations. Each character, in fact, faces the same demon manifest in its own way in their lives. But Henry is the implement upon which so much is written. He is, quite literally, the skrimshander, the ivory unpon which the tale is inscribed, standing in as representative of each lost and searching character. Harbach certainly mines a Melville connection here beyond just Henry's name, with Guert Affenlight having built his academic career on discovering that Melville once gave a lecture at Westish, the placement of Melville's statue on the lakeshore looking out upon that inland sea with his back to the campus, the Harpooners mascot for their college athletics, and even the similar esprit de corps between a baseball team and a whaling crew. But there is no white whale here unless you accept baseball itself as the elusive and coveted universe. But in fact so much of the novel is not really about baseball but about life and recognizing rather than devaluing your gifts, coming of age, and learning to reach for what means the most so baseball would really be only an imperfect white whale here.
Harbach has chosen big, impressive, and difficult to encapsulate themes. He has gone at them valiantly but they overwhelm the reading itself. His characters are wooden and written strictly to type. And Pella, as the only woman in the novel (Owen's mother and an overly sensitive professor counting for very little given their fleeting contributions to the almost all male tale), seems to exist as a woman solely sexually. In all other ways, she could have been male so ungendered was she. Mike never feels authentically college-aged, coming across as far older and more jaded than even the most quasi-sophisticated 19-22 year old has ever hoped to be. Owen also seems unbelievable as a character most of the time although his seeming veneer so beyond his years might simply be the fact that he is only ever seen through others' eyes in a way that Schwartzy, on whose inner feelings the narrative alternately focuses, is not. Guert Affenlight and Owen's relatonship isn't particularly convincing either, reminiscent of an angsty, immature and uncertain, idealized and unrealistic puppy love than an actual adult coupling. And although Guert is just discovering his latent homosexuality in this obsession with Owen, he's also an adult make with many a relationship behind him so acting as a giddy teenager seems a stretch. But characters aside, the pacing of the novel was a bit on the slow side and the ending was too perfect Hollywood movie predictable to do justice to the existential wrestling throughout the rest of the novel. The parallels between baseball and life are there and fit but I guess I ended up feeling a bit about the book as I do about the game, especially in the second half of the story when there are many pages describing the happenings on the field. I wish I loved this as much as so many others did, including in our book club.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.