This is the first novel I’ve read by Richard Yates, although Revolutionary Road has been on my TBR list ever since the film (which I haven’t actually seen) came out. I wasn’t sure what to expect beyond a vague sense of classic American sensibilities being placed under the microscope. In a sense, this semi-autobiographical novel was an easy way in, playing to my interest in school stories, as it follows the young William Grove through two years at the isolated Dorset Academy in Connecticut. Around Grove’s story swirls those of the other boys and the masters at this odd, struggling school; while Pearl Harbour looms on the horizon, and war threatens to change the Dorset boys forever.
The foreword and afterword, written by William Grove in the first person, give the sense that A Good School is purely autobiographical, as the lines between author and narrator are blurred. In fact, Yates has simply introduced a few distancing tactics by which his own schooldays are cloaked with a veneer of fiction. His own school, Avon Old Farms School, was also in Connecticut; it was also founded by an eccentric elderly woman; and also emphasised the importance of outdoor work for the boys alongside academic studies. Like Dorset, Avon Old Farms school has self-consciously ‘Cotswold’ architecture, has a print shop on campus and eschews competitive sports against other schools. Beyond that, it’s hard to know how much of what Grove experiences is based on Yates’s own youth, but it does explain the curiously pungent sense of authenticity in the novel.
I suppose there is a plot, in the sense that we see Grove and his classmates moving through the school and becoming increasingly aware of the war and how they might contribute to it; but the novel is much more of a character study. Don’t be fooled by the blurb, which suggests that Pearl Harbour plays a larger role than it does: this book is set purely within the school. We see the uneasy struggles for popularity: struggles in which Grove initially fails resoundingly, but in which he manages to make some headway once he starts work on the school paper. Here are jocks and oddballs, self-conscious intellectuals, and the one or two strangely genuine ‘nice’ guys; all trying to ignore the fact that Dorset has a reputation for being a ‘funny’ school which takes boys that nowhere else will touch. Along with the boys there are their teachers, who scarcely have better balance in their own lives and who, like their charges, are prisoners in this remote institution where emotions are heightened, pressurised and blown out of all proportion. Affairs, fantasies and thwarted ambitions fuel the running of the school and the small tragedies simmering under its surface – while the headmaster, Alcott Knoedler, worries about the financial deficits and wonders how long the Dorset ‘idyll’ can last.
This was a curious book: elegiac in some ways, sardonic in others, and without much of a sense of catharsis or resolution. Nor is there a true emotional heart to it. Any true feeling is stamped down on and rendered tragic: Edith’s passion for Larry, for example; Draper’s relationship with his wife; Bucky and Polly. Grove and his peers drift through their education without, it seems, making much of a mark on it, or vice versa; indeed, Grove’s sole concession to commitment is through his work on the paper (I wonder if this, too, is something lifted from Yates’s own past). The school maintains the traditions of Commencement and a Spring Dance, but you get the sense that these things are a mask, upholding an impression in which neither the staff nor the boys believe. And, in that sense, it’s a sad book too: not exactly a story about loss of innocence, but one in which the bella figura becomes more important than reality. The school itself has a kind of impermanence which reflects the changes going on in the outside world: one age is ending, another beginning, and these boys are trapped somewhere in the middle.
I can’t say that I’m on fire to read more of Yates’s work – though I will, because I have a couple of his other books on my TBR pile – but I’m intrigued. Reading this gave me the same kind of satisfaction as solving a logic problem: it didn’t transport me, but it was well-crafted. I’m interested, but not compelled, to find out more.