A Mottled Picture


A Mottled Picture A Good School by Richard Yates Delacorte/Sevmour Lawrence 178 pp $8 95 Reviewed by Randall Rothenberg In his introduction to Is There Life After High School, a humorous...

...A Mottled Picture A Good School by Richard Yates Delacorte/Sevmour Lawrence 178 pp $8 95 Reviewed by Randall Rothenberg In his introduction to Is There Life After High School, a humorous investigation of sociological and psychological aspects of American secondary education, Ralph Keyes writes "I'm convinced that democracy takes its purest form in a public high school locker room where everyone's undressing for PE " Just as public high school is the home of adolescent democracy, boarding school—where one has no escape, where one is, in effect, in a locker room 24 hours a day—is the cradle of tyranny Descriptions of the condition appear in a body of literature grown large enough to deserve a generic title, "Prep-school fiction " This comes in different guises the bitter (Catcher in the Rye), the carefree (Tom Brown's School Days) and the introspective (A Sepai ale Peace) The only prerequisite is a prep-school setting, or prep-school educated characters The archetype of the genre must be Owen Johnson's Lawrene ville Stones, for those tales of late 19th-century life at the famous New Jersey institution defined boarding school for all succeeding generations A Good School, Richard Yates' third novel and the newest example of prep-school fiction, falls between the bitter and the introspective Johnson's young winners—Dink Stover, Hungry Smeed, Doc MacNooder, and the Tennessee Shad—are replaced by Yates with chronic unfortunates like William Grove, Bucky Ward and Pierre Van Loon, plus such older failures as English master Robert Dnscoll, crippled chemistry teacher Jack Draper and headmaster Alcott Knoedler But because Yates has chosen to detail the loneliness and emotional bankruptcy of so many characters in one very slim novel, rather than in a fuller work or, a la Johnson, in a series of short stories, we are given little to identify with In the end, the "m-betweenness" wins out, lack of definition is where>l Good School fails Dorset Academy, a New England boarding school for boys unfit to attend the more prestigious institutions, is on the brink of financial failure when William Grove enters it on the eve of World War II Dorset's foredoomed struggle is complemented by the battles, defeats and small triumphs of the misfits in the student body, faculty and faculty families Grove, who is tormented and subjected to sexual humiliation almost immediately upon his arrival, eventually achieves respectability after rising to the editorial chairmanship of the school newspaper He is perhaps the only winner, however meager his victory Virtually everyone else is a loser Sickly weakling Bucky Ward loses his absentee girl friend, teacher Dnscoll enforces the emotional loss of his son, Draper loses his wife (although he regains her by default), and headmaster Knoedler finally loses his school The cumulative sense of defeat is overwhelming, but that sense is all Yates allows to come through His flitting from person to person prevents us from ever gettmg to know any of the characters in the book well enough to really care about them When Dorset's golden-haired boy, top student and athlete Larry Gaines, dies in a freak Merchant Marine accident a few weeks after committing himself body and soul to young Edith Stone (the beautiful, previously innocent daughter of one of the masters), we can neither empathize with the hysterically distraught Edith nor feel the loss felt by the school, the most we can muster is, "Tough break, kids " Even Grove, the nominal protagonist, emerges pretty much as one student among many Occasionally Yates does try to achieve the poignancy that is generally a feature of prep-school fiction (A Separate Peace leaps to mind), but his few bits of sexual exphcitness are jarring enough to mar the effort Contrast the "gauze-covered camera" view of Edith and Larry's first encounter?and soon nothing mattered at all but the strength and purity of their coupling In the long aftermath they lay whispering together, saying things nobody else would ever be privileged to hear "—with the bluntness of Grove's near-humiliation "They hadn't jerked him off, they hadn't made him come, and he knew now that they wouldn't It might be a dismal triumph, but it was a kind of triumph all the same by squirming and craning around, Grove could see the hand that still worked on him " Such frank descriptions of brutal schoolboy antics could be devastating, if they were part of a sustained attempt to assault the reader with the realities of pubescent torment Instead, they are annoying interruptions As soon as one begins to feel the disgrace of William Grove, or young Bobby Dnscoll, the moment is over, and the gauze filter is again placed over the lense—albeit with one more tear By the end, there are so many tears in the gauze that a mottled picture is developed A Good School is both different from and in many ways echoes some of Richard Yates' earlier works In his second novel, The Easter Parade, he avoided the profusion-of-people pitfall, Emily and Sarah Grimes are so full, so complete, that the effect of the story is marvelously cathartic At the same time, a preoccupation with adolescent sex, the use of newspapers and newspaper terminology, and a protagonist who is the child of divorced parents also mark The Easter Parade and would therefore seem to identify the new work as at least partly autobiographical This points up another of the author's annoying tendencies He appears to have taken the English Comp I dictum, "Only write about what you know," strictly to heart, repeating his plot devices in two successive novels Moreover, personal loneliness and failure as thematic threads have been used so often by Yates (his 1962 book of short stories was entitled Eleven Kinds of Loneliness) that they have begun to tire If A Good School was written with the conviction of personal remembrances, then Yates has allowed a flood of memories to crowd him, to fill a space that rightfully belongs to a few expanded situations and clearly drawn characters What is here is hardly enough, the reader is left unsatisfied, feeling he has read a lengthy introduction to a novel that does not follow I was always interested in discovering what actually did happen to Dink Stover after Lawrenceville and Yale Of what happened to William Grove and his compatriots after their 1944 graduation from a crumbling Dorset, I know little and I care less...

Vol. 61 • November 1978 • No. 22

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