(Warning: possible spoilers in the second paragraph.)
Henry Skrimshander had no particular plans to go on to college when a sophomore from Westish College recruited him after watching him in a single baseball game. He’s scrawny enough to be considered the prototypical 90 pound weakling, and only big beefy guys get recruited by scouts with tempting scholarships. His blue collar family not only can’t imagine going on to college, but hasn’t the money to pay his tuition in any case. It isn’t until Mike Schwartz, the student who approached Henry in the first place, snows his father that Henry realized his daydream of playing in college. His roommate turns out to be a gay mixed race literature student and blase baseball player, Owen, nicknamed the Buddha for his unflappable tranquility.
The book skims fairly quickly through Henry’s freshman and sophomore years as Mike pushes Henry through a stringent strenuous training regime, developing his natural talent, with a digression into the life of the college president, and his daughter Pella, returned home after the crumbling of her impetuous marriage to a much older man. The majority of the plot concentrates on Henry’s junior year, when the team (largely through Henry’s talent) has begun winning baseball games. Unfortunately, Henry loses his nerve when he beans Owen, distracted by a book, straight in the face, sending him to the hospital for reconstructive surgery. He loses his talent with his nerve, and the scouts evaporate to follow the current new crop of hot new young desirable talent. It’s at this point that the second major sub-plot develops: Guert Affenlight, the college president and baseball booster, realizes that it’s no mere admiration he holds for Owen but love of an adult and moderately carnal nature. They form a relationship, though are careful to keep it secret for the obvious reasons, but are discovered. Affenlight is on the verge of being forced to resign when he dies of a heart attack. After a summer of stunned mourning, Owen, Henry, Mike and Pella surreptitiously disinter the president in the wee hours of the morning and tip him overboard into the depths of Lake Michigan, as they feel he’d be happier in the lake he loved. (Bear with Harbach on this one: it does make a sort of sense within the context of the novel, and struck me as a gesture that’s both loving towards Affenlight and a way to provide the students closure.)
The book ends as Henry returns to college for his senior year and Mike takes the sports coach up on his offer of a job as baseball coach.
This isn’t brilliant literature for the ages. There are a few overdone stereotypes and plot holes, largely centering on the novel’s gay character. I don’t believe that he’d be quite that serene, nor do I agree with Harbach’s decision to make him a fashion conscious germophobe with a cleaning fetish. I also don’t believe that he’d make it onto the baseball team, given his apparently near-complete lack of interest in the game, to the point of involving him in that contrived accident in the dugout. Why would a player be reading a book rather than following the game? However, I would appreciate this book if the only thing going for it were the other characters’ acceptance of Owen’s sexuality. There were a few homophobic moments, though these are fairly clearly The Wrong Response; through the majority of the book, Owen’s sexuality seems to be accepted, as his relationship with another student. It isn’t until the college president strikes up a friendship which morphs into a Relationship, that trouble strikes, and that largely at the president for having an inappropriate relationship with a student of any gender.
I’m not sure whether to call this a baseball or a literature novel–the school’s mascot is Melville–but that’s not necessarily a problem, any more one needs to place Chabon’s Summerland in baseball or mythology. I found it interesting, but as with The Sisters Brothers as it relates to the “Western” genre, I suspect that I’d have appreciated this much more if I knew more about baseball and Melville.
(as a side note, it’s interesting to compare the American with the British reviews in regards what the big deal is about baseball; the Americans just assume the readers know, while the British ones pause to explain, very earnestly, how important it is)