Stanford’s Three Books program is nearly as integral to the fabric of the school as some of our other, more eccentric traditions (Full Moon on the Quad and Exotic Party come to mind). In that sense, it’s fitting that “home” — a safe place, a place of community — is the theme of this year’s selections. Unfortunately, despite its best intentions, Chad Harbach’s novel, “The Art of Fielding,” is unable to imbue Westish College, the book’s setting, with this same sense of belonging.
That is not to say that Harbach’s breakthrough novel is completely rootless. From the college’s sexually confused president to the baseball team’s fresh-faced prodigy, the novel’s protagonists struggle to find themselves in the small town, Midwestern bubble that Westish provides, but the college seems less of a home and more of a train stop, a place to pause lest nothing better comes along.
The novel chronicles the interweaving lives of members of the fictional Westish College in Wisconsin, a place reminiscent of Kenyon College or any other under-the-radar liberal arts school. At the novel’s fulcrum is Henry Skrimshander, the school’s star shortstop bound for the big leagues. At Skrimshander’s side is “The Art of Fielding,” a baseball bible of sorts that guides him both on and off the field. But when the poor boy’s promising future begins to manifest itself — calls from sports agents, offers from minor and major league teams — he chokes under the pressure.
Along for the ride is teammate Mike Shwartz, a self-starter type from the rough side of town who takes it upon himself to train Skrimshander at the expense of his own sense of self. And by the end of the novel, it’s still unclear whether or not either protagonist truly knows who he truly is — or ever will. Instead, the two characters remain static in the confines of Westish, a pleasant place to be sure, but by no means a fertile ground for personal growth, given that both boys end up nearly where they started by the final chapter.
The most problematic element of the novel is the inconceivability of some of the relationships, most notably that between Guert Affenlight, the school’s 60-year-old president, and Owen Dunne, an undergraduate whose confidence and intelligence Affenlight falls in love with. Despite having been with many women and writing a book on literary bromances, Affenlight becomes enamored with Dunne, a man younger than his own daughter. Affenlight, a perpetual bachelor, craves an intellectual and sexual companion, and, for some reason, Dunne fits the bill.
May-December romances are not unheard of, particularly in literature, but at the same time, there is no Nabokovian prelude to Affenlight’s infatuation with Dunne. He foolishly embarks on a romance with Dunne, who responds in earnest, with even more confidence than the old man despite the younger’s relative lack of authority and age. Although Affenlight’s motivations behind his affections for Dunne are clear (or, clear-ish given his bachelorhood and fascination with 19th century homoerotic literature), Dunne’s are not. Dunne, who is openly gay, does not make his reasoning clear but forces Affenlight to treat their liaisons like a full-blown relationship as opposed to a covert affair, which ultimately leads to the president’s downfall. The whole situation is a little too far-fetched, even if it is all in the name of — dare I say it — true love.
Nevertheless, the only character that I truly felt was able to hold his own and not flounder underneath a facade of arrogance or immaturity was Dunne, who doesn’t cling to Westish as a means of self-identification but instead enriches the school with his independent spirit, much in the same vein that Stanford hopes the incoming freshmen will add new life to its campus. Dunne is self-aware, yet vulnerable; unique, yet relatable enough to garner sympathy. His character is rich enough to spawn sequels, if Harbach so chooses to continue the Westish saga.
Another redeeming element of Harbach’s novel is his poignant and pithy voice, which makes for a fast, compelling read. He draws on not only Affenlight’s beloved 19th century literary heroes — Melville, Emerson and Whitman to name a few — but also on pop culture, sports and esoteric aspects of small college life. Sometimes the book reads as smoothly as a primetime soap opera — daddy issues, ill-fated hookups, freak accidents and all. For the sake of enjoyment if not anything else, “The Art of Fielding” is a safe pick.
Still, by the end of the book one is unsure what “home” means to Harbach. Sure, Westish is a home of sorts, but did its inhabitants really grow into themselves to the extent that they leave the college a better place? Or did Skrimshander, Schwartz and the gang simply engage in a series of arguments around the family dinner table in which nothing was settled? As we strive to forge our own identities on Stanford’s campus, the latter option, although deflating, is certainly more realistic.