In a novel in which one character approaches another and introduces himself by saying, “I’ll be your gay mulatto roommate,” it is not difficult to find subtexts and alternative meanings that hint at latent homosexuality. And the sport of baseball, more than any other, has for many years lent itself to excessively thoughtful analysis regarding potentially deeper meanings and whether it stands as a metaphor for life itself. Films like “Bull Durham” and “Field of Dreams” have mined this territory quite well. In Chad Harbach’s 2011 novel, The Art of Fielding, the role of baseball is very clearly intended to serve a larger literary purpose than simply providing the subject around which its characters revolve. Taking place at a fictional Midwestern university situated on the shore of Lake Michigan, the school’s president, Guert Affenlight, is a serious student of Herman Melville and commissioned a statute on the university’s grounds of the author of Moby Dick, designating the school mascot the Harpooners. During Harbach’s story, there is an exchange between the book’s protagonist, Henry Skrimshander, and one of his teammates, Owen, involving the paradox of a player putting down his copy of Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle while displaying his inability to remember the coach’s sign 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.”
This is book about the science of a sport, but it is also a book about life – not exactly a novel innovation, but a well-executed one. Even the book’s title, The Art of Fielding, suggests a deeper understanding of the interaction of sport and life than might otherwise be the case. Interpretations of literature and film that seek to expose homosexual undertones are rife among academics; the validity of such interpretations, however, is frequently open to question. Harbach’s novel, though, does not shy away from that particular subject. In addition to Henry’s introduction to his roommate, his first appearance on the baseball diamond, during which he displays his ineptitude at hitting, elicits this thought from team captain and catcher Mike Schwartz:
“Just then Schwartz said—ever so softly, so that it would seem to come from inside the kid’s own skull—‘Pussy’.”
Few words in the English language are more closely associated with homosexual connotations than this one when applied to a male. Additionally, organized athletics automatically evokes images of team locker rooms, which is an environment ready-made for such literary allusions. The Art of Fielding, however, is a work of literature in the truest sense of the word. Harbach’s day job is as editor of n+1, a literary publication based in New York City. His novel is filled with literary references as well as baseball references for those who have been around awhile (for example, in the book, Henry is a student of a fictional book on baseball titled The Art of Fielding written by the fictional author Aparicio Rodriquez, a subtle reference to real-life baseball Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio). One can find no shortage of intellectual references and subtexts in this story, including suggestions of homosexuality.