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Home Run for Harbach

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Chad Harbach's Breakthrough Debut Novel is a Big Hit

The Art of Fielding uses the game of baseball as a metaphor for life. It's about how we handle failure and either learn and recover from it, or never really do. The debut novel from the novelist who toiled in obscurity, who started n+1 literary magazine after graduating Harvard, who took nine years to write The Art of Fielding, rockets Harbach into a major league author.

Of course, in baseball, we measure errors. Three strikes, you're out. Success is whether or not you can hit the ball one out of three or four at-bats. A no-hitter is a major feat for a pitcher and a shut-out makes for a good day on the mound. We keep endless stats, know players as they come through shitty farm teams, and watch them battle adversity. So baseball is a contrivance for Harbach as his well-honed, developing characters, evolve separately as "players," then come together as a team. While individual performance matters, it's all about the team.

Harbach was born in Racine, Wisconsin, a depressed town south of Milwaukee where my own Irish ancestors settled and most of them are buried. I was born not far away near a bacon processing plant. The fictional college and its ball team seem to be in Door County outside Green Bay.

The irony for me personally is that the fictional account starts and ends with Wisconsin, Lake Michigan a prominent, patient force. And it follows baseball. My grandfather pitched in Chicago in the Cubs farm system. My dad played "industrial league" paid ball in south Milwaukee. My cousin played for over ten years in the MLB with both the White Sox and later the Orioles next to Cal. His son plays now, moving up to the Seattle Mariners and then the Boston Red Sox. My wife's nephew got to Double AA baseball and made a living before heading back to college and finishing at Tulane (where he was a star for the Green Tide). My family knows baseball and Harbach has studied the game as assiduously as George Will.

The "big game" finale for the Div 3 championship is against Amherst, where I will take my daughter to school Sept. 1, a week before the Little, Brown book hits the book stores and electronic e-book distribution. So it all "hits pretty close to home."

Now let's look at the real stats behind Harbach's meteoric rise. Master's of Fine Arts. University of Virginia. He spends nine years in the minor league system meticulously researching and writing before even getting to the plate. His Harvard buddies all begin getting called-up, two of them from n+1 publishing books. Harbach gets his chance at the plate at the Book Expo of America in New York in June where his publisher distributes advance copies at "Book Buzz," the mound for first-time authors.

Harbach then amazingly earns a $650,000 "signing bonus" with Hatchette/Little Brown as a rookie novelist. He now has a contract with HBO for a series about his story. Advances like this make headlines. The publishing world is abuzz about Harbach's arrival.

Right now, today, Twitter is on-fire over the new player Harbach. New York magazine ran a story last weekend on whether such upfront dollars should go to new novelists - and concludes taking a risk on a virtual unknown like Harbach is worth the investment.

I took this 600 plus-page novel on vacation. I wrote notes in the margins, underlined passages, and couldn't put it down since there were many personal points of reference.

The protagonist is searching to find his game after losing a natural talent. Henry is a gifted athlete and his place at Shortstop, like Cal Ripken, requires Iron Man work regimens. He makes a mistake and almost never recovers. His personal coach, that guy who never really leaves college, takes uppers and downers (muscle relaxants) to "stay in the game."Each character including the university president, his daughter and later the catcher's girlfriend, the gay kid on the team who gets hurt reading a book in the dugout, is developing as players and people. Then they all come together for the big game of life and death. One of my margin notes says the characters are a little over-wrought. Or maybe the reader wants to know the score before the innings are up.

We love to root for the underdog. We love an American story that's not really about sports but humanity. We empathize with Harbach's team. He takes us on the road game and back home again.