Is this the best sports book of 2012?

OK, we know it’s a little early to be tossing around statements like the one above. But let us assure you, The Art of Fielding, the debut of American writer Chad Harbach, is a special book. It’s a heart-swelling read about youth and success and security and what happens when they all go away, and it might — just might — get you reading novels again.

Set in Westish College, a middling institution on Lake Michigan, it explores the varied crises befalling its baseball team, the Harpooners, and the staff and students in and around it. For Mike Schwartz, the beefy team captain, it’s academic failure and prescription-drug dependency; for college principal Guert Affenlight, it’s late-blooming homosexual urges; for his daughter, Pella,
it’s a destructive marriage to an older man; for shortstop Henry Skrimshander, the Harpooners’ great white hope, it’s simply forgetting how to throw a ball right.

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This is a sports book that’s also about men and the relationships between them: the friendship, the adoration, the rivalry, the resentment, the times of chest-thumping togetherness and the moments of blank-faced betrayal. And it’s told with kindness and good humour: Harbach doesn’t torture his characters — or his readers. Which, at the dawn of a new year, is a pretty good place to start.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach is out on 19 January (Fourth Estate)