The achievement, for me, of the first 100 pages is two of its characters — both (a) the mythical shortstop (and hero of protagonist Henry Skrimshander) Aparicio Rodriguez, whose (fake) book The Art of Fielding gives Harbach’s own book its title and (b) Henry’s “gay mulatto roomate” and member of the Westish College baseball team, Owen Dunne.
The fictional Rodriguez is basically, so far as I can tell, Ozzie Smith as written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Of him we know that he played for the Cardinals, that he’s the best defensive shortstop in baseball history, and that he played during Henry’s lifetime. Beyond that, though, there’s his book on fielding, which appears to be a sort of collection of aphorisms on same — some of which get all Lao Tzu up in this figurative piece. Like this pair, for example:
3. There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.
33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.
If the reader is familiar with Eduardo Galeano’s Football in Sun and Shadow, that appears to be reasonable analog for Rodriguez’ prose style — what has never been referred to as “South American Nice.”
Owen Dunne bears a resemblance to characters from the campus novels of David Lodge in that he’s literate without being insufferable. The difference is that he’s an undergraduate — and usually Lodge’s characters are professors or, at the very least, graduate students. He tries out for, and makes, the Westish baseball team as a freshman, despite the fact that he doesn’t care whether he plays or not, spending most of his time reading on the bench. I believe — although I’m not sure — that one might describe him as insouciant. This exchange is a favorite of mine:
“Owen,” Hendry said excitingly, “I think Coach wants you to hit for Meccini.”
Owen closed The Voyage of the Beagle, on which he had recently embarked. “Really?”
“Runners on first and second,” Rick said. “I bet he wants you to bunt.”
“What’s the bunt sign?”
“Two tugs on the left earlobe,” Henry told him. “But first he has to give the indicator, which is squeeze the belt. But if he goes to his cap with either hand or says your first name, that’s the wipe-off, and then you have to wait and see whether –”
“Forget it,” Owen said. I’ll just bunt.