JUST AS ONE knew that at least one of the cast of Friends was bound to have a viable film career, it figured that one of these guys had to have a really good first novel in him; likable as it was, Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision was not it, nor was Keith Gessen's All the Sad Young Literary Men, likable as it was. But The Art of Fielding is not only likable, but also a really good first novel.
Not a great novel, perhaps. Too many superfluous modifiers and lame verb choices, for one thing. Do editors still edit? Maxwell Perkins, thou shouldst be living at this hour!
The characters are quirky, flawed, but well-intentioned, capable of change, and ultimately lovable, as if several of John Irving's characters had married several of Anne Tyler's characters, and these are their offspring. The novel is heavily plotted, à la Irving, with Irving-out-of-Dickens cliffhanger chapter endings (and proper names: Henry Skrimshander, Guert Affenlight). When not just one, but two crucial plot turns involved serious head injuries from flying baseballs, as in A Prayer for Owen Meany, I began to suspect an homage to the master.
One of the plots involves a Death-in-Venice relationship (in this instance, consummated) with a gay mixed-race baseball-playing intellectual prodigy as Tadzio, a scholar of 19th century American lit turned college president as Aschenbach...although the crucial precursor here may be not Mann but Mark Merlis, whose American Studies fictionalized the tragedy of F. O. Matthiessen, a brilliant scholar of American literature who was double-ambushed by homophobia and McCarthyism. When The Art of Fielding calls such texts to mind, one realizes that no, it's not exactly great--it's a little too quick to turn on the sentimentality tap, a little too willing to stick to the shallows. But it's as good a baseball novel as I have read since Eric Greenberg's The Celebrant.
By the way, is Mark Merlis ever going to publish another novel? A cursory web search suggests he has moved on into policy wonkery. We need policy wonks, to be sure, but not at the sacrifice of one of our best novelists.