A Good School – Richard Yates

a good schoolI am a total sucker for prep school stories, and A Good School doesn’t disappoint. Yates delves into the private lives of the prep school boys and their disillusioned professors without the pitfalls of sentimentality or melodrama. There is no doubt that the tales related in this novel are semi-autobiographical.

Set in early 1940s Connecticut at a second-tier boys’ school, Dorset Academy, A Good School mainly follows the newly-admitted-at-reduced-tuition Bill Grove. Pigeon-chested from a family of divorce, Grove is a lackluster student who only thrives while working on the school paper. So many adolescent concerns are addressed here: trying to break in as the “new kid,” wanting to be besties with another boy and not knowing how to handle it without being smothering, being smothered by another boy who thinks you’re the bees knees, all while trying to pass French and find a tuxedo for the dance. The sexual hazing is fierce at Dorset, and there is a touching scene with a boy and his father who are both trying to accept it and move past the humiliation. These stories all happen under the threatening future that as soon as they graduate, they will be fighting in the war.

There are several privileged rich boys at Dorset, but, much to the surprise of many professors, there are several boys in attendance from lower-income households as well. It comes as no surprise, then, that Dorset is in bankruptcy. These boys and their parents are clinging with a tenuous grasp to the idea that Dorset is still “a good school.”

This is mostly a coming-of-age tale, although Yates also includes the stories of some of the professors: the cuckolded handicapped professor, the nonchalant French professor doing the cuckolding, the sexual awakening of Dr. Stone’s blossoming daughter. These stories present a well-rounded view of Dorset Academy, but also touch on the human condition, and include the failings and unwitting triumphs of these men struggling to find purpose at a floundering institution.

The closure of the school, and the final chapters that focus on Bill Grove reminiscing about his time at Dorset, are under the shadow of a sense of resignation and anguish, but also nostalgia.

This a fun story with dark undertones. Highly recommended.

 

 

 

The Burgess Boys – A review

burgessboys

Compared to Strout’s other novels that I’ve read, the famous Olive Kitteridge, Amy and Isabelle, and, most recently, My Name is Lucy Barton, The Burgess Boys was a disappointment. This novel will not let you down if you’re seeking relatable character development and subtly crafted family dysfunction that Strout adroitly molds into her novels; however, this one fell flat for me.

Based on the flap copy, I expected this story to focus on the inflammatory tale of a young boy, Zach, arrested for throwing a pig’s head into a mosque in a small town in Maine, and the racially-divided townspeople’s reactions to this hate crime. Strout introduces some Somali characters here, but never takes them anywhere, and occasionally drops in mild epithets to explain the complacent attitudes of the Mainers towards the immigrant Somalis, but that’s as far as it goes. This aspect of the story just eventually faded into nowhere. Instead, Strout takes a left turn and begins to explore the relationships among Zach’s mother, Susan, and her two brothers, Jim and Bob.

The Susan/Jim/Bob dysfunction was mildly interesting, but not nearly as introspective as the relationships explored in Strout’s other work. These characters were slightly more one-dimensional: the difficult sister, the ignored but has a heart of gold middle brother, the asshole litigator eldest brother. I didn’t really care for any of them. The minor characters were much more fascinating – the Somali refuge, the woman minister whose aims are only vaguely described, Bob’s conflicted ex-wife. Those characters would have possibly made a more interesting story than the trio of Maine upper-middle-classers dealing with a long ago family tragedy.

My main complaint with this book? Jim was a self-indulgent, insecure, arrogant asshole and everyone kowtowed to him. Over and over and over again. “It’s okay, Jim, we know that you were rude to everyone, but you’ve had a difficult time keeping up with all your lies. Poor Jim! Come here and give me a hug!”

Kill him, already. Come on, Bob, throw a drink in his face. Kick him out, Susan, and slash his tires. I kept waiting for this to happen and it never did. It left me exhaling at the end with a “that’s it?” expression on my face.

If you’ve never read Strout, start with Olive Kitteridge or Amy and Isabelle. They’re both awe-inspiring. Try this one if you’re a die-hard fan, as I am. I’ll keep reading anything she puts on paper and I’d love to take her out for tea. Call me, Elizabeth, I still love you!