An amiable, Middle American, baseball-centric coming-of-age tale.
Henry Skrimshander seems bound for nowhere special, and fast. He’s good enough out on the field, but not quite good enough for the Majors or the Ivy League; as he knows, “College coaches were like girls: their eyes went straight to the biggest, bulkiest guys, regardless of what those guys were really worth.” Through good dumb luck, though, catcher Mike Schwartz discovers Henry and gets him a scholarship at Westish College, a middling but OK school up by Lake Michigan, which, though not of Ivy standing, doesn’t lack for cliques and cabals. Henry feels somewhat adrift there, though he’s steadied by the odd wisdom of the book that gives Harbach’s its title. “Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does,” runs one of its apothegms, even though death seems less a part of baseball than of, say, bullfighting. Henry’s parents are somewhat more than adrift when they learn that he’s bunking with a gay roommate who helpfully buys their son clothes so that he can fit in; their small-town heads are in full swoon, but no more than the school’s eccentric president, who decides that he might be in love with one of his students at the time that his divorcee adult daughter returns home to whip up storms of the heart all her own. The tale takes turns reminiscent of The World According to Garp, though the influence is incidental; Harbach would seem to owe as much to Twain and Vonnegut as to anyone else. In the end, nothing ever quite turns out like anyone expects, which, as grown-ups know, is the nature of life. The recognition of that truth can lead novelists and their characters into cynicism or lazy contempt, but Harbach’s keep both stiff upper lips and smiles on their faces.
A promising debut—and one guaranteed to draw attention, for it commanded an unusually big advance and will likely be pushed accordingly. Stay tuned.