The Art of Fielding, a hefty book about the fortunes of a college baseball team, has arrived to trumpets and cymbals, as much because of the colossal advance paid for it – Keith Gessen, a friend of the author, has written an e-book just about the novel’s auction – as because of the exhortations of Jonathan Franzen in its favour. Henry Skrimshander, the baseball-obsessed son of a South Dakotan blue-collar worker, is given the opportunity to attend Westish College in Wisconsin after he is spotted playing by Mike Schwartz, the captain of the team. Westish is venerable but mouldering, with neither the academic reputation nor the sporting prowess of comparable schools. Schwartz sets out to remedy the second of these derelictions, and Henry is an impeccable shortstop, with an arm strong and true, and a mitt that seems to attract the ball magnetically.
With him as the pivot, the Westish Harpooners are more successful than they have ever been, and Henry is on course to be drafted into the professional league, until a throw goes awry and smashes into the face of one of his teammates. Henry’s game, hitherto faultless, becomes increasingly error-prone.