First published in 1978, A Good School is perhaps the most autobiographical of Richard Yates’ novels. The setting is Dorset Academy, a private, all-male prep school in northern Connecticut – a somewhat odd yet well-intentioned institution which, unbeknownst to the parents who send their boys there, turns out to be on the brink of financial collapse. It soon becomes clear that there is something a little funny about Dorset; while the head likes to think of it as ‘a good school’, there is something decidedly off or second-rate here, a notion that is typified by the following quote.
Dorset Academy had a wide reputation for accepting boys who, for any number of reasons, no other school would touch. (p. 5)
Here we meet William Grove, a hesitant, socially awkward teenager whose experiences at the school are conveyed during the novel, forming a sort of spine or focal point for the vignettes presented throughout.
The kid was a mess. His tweed suit hung greasy with lack of cleaning, his necktie was a twisted rag, his long fingernails were blue, and he needed a haircut. He seemed in danger of stumbling over his own legs as he made his way to a chair, and he sat so awkwardly as to suggest it might be impossible for his body to find composure. What an advertisement for Dorset Academy! (p. 16)
We are quickly introduced to a large cast of additional characters, mostly other boarders at the school and the masters that teach there. (As the Dorset campus is somewhat isolated and enclosed, the various teachers and their families also live within its grounds.) There is Pierre Van Loon, a fellow boarder and social outcast who latches onto Grove as a sort of last resort; Terry Flynn, a popular, good-looking boy with ‘face of an angel and the body of a perfect athlete’; and Steve McKenzie, the second-floor dorm inspector who always seems to be spoiling for a fight. Several other boys feature at various points – too many to cover in detail in this review – but each one feels recognisable and authentic even when relatively briefly sketched.
Yates is particularly good at capturing the many anxieties of a teenage boy, the day-to-day experiences that Grove and others like him must navigate if they are to survive in this difficult environment. Namely, the numerous fights and instances of petty bullying that break out, often over nothing; the inevitable comparisons of body parts in the showers, both overt and covert; and the angst of trying to form and maintain friendships, especially once the boys reach an age when they are allowed to room together in pairs. In this scene, Richard Edward Thomas Lear, an English boy with a somewhat supercilious manner, is itching for a fight. Anyone will do – in other words, whoever happens to get in his way at the appointed time.
Sometimes, though, and particularly at this hour of the day, an unaccountable melancholy settled on him. He wanted to punch and wrestle and shout; those were the only activities that could make him feel fit again. With his shower completed and his clothes changed for dinner, he went out into the hall and found Art Jennings intently flicking specks of lint off his black jacket. Jennings was a hulking, amiable nearsighted boy; he was bigger than Lear, but that would only make it more stimulating. (p. 12)
In his early months at the school, Grove finds himself on the receiving end of a number of unpleasant schoolboy rituals – various fights, a wrestling match and a potentially humiliating incident of an overtly sexual nature. Nevertheless, Grove refuses to let the bullies get the better of him (well, if not physically, then at the very least mentally). He tries to stand his ground, refusing to give them the satisfaction of cowing or crying in their presence.
In time, Grove finds his niche in the production of the fortnightly school newspaper, the well-respected Dorset Chronicle, joining the editorial team as a prize for his essay on America at War. Although he struggles to cut it in Maths, French, and Chemistry, Grove performs well in English, demonstrating a natural talent for writing, a skill he hones and puts to good use during his time on the paper. Eventually the position of editor-in-chief beckons, a role that boosts Grove’s confidence, giving him a new sense of purpose and self-respect at the school.
Most of the time he moved around the campus with a new sense of freedom – and even, occasionally, with a sense of his own importance. There was only one school newspaper, after all, and he was its editor-in-chief. Little kids shyly asked him questions, and boys of his own age and older seemed never to find him ridiculous. (p. 81)
The Chronicle also presents an opportunity for friendships to be forged and developed. When new boy Bucky Ward shows an interest in the paper, Grove gives him a chance, and the two boys soon become good friends. In time, Grove also wins the respect and comradeship of Hugh Britt, a talented but somewhat distant intellectual and former editor of the Chronicle who still plays a key role in the editorial team. But the pleasures of friendship do not come without their own complications, a point that Grove discovers in due course…
Alongside the boys’ experiences and exploits, we are also privy to the trials and tribulations of the teaching staff and their families. There are the headmaster’s desperate attempts to get the masters to accept a pay cut following strained discussions with the Trustees; the fading stages of an affair between Jean-Paul La Prade, the French master, and Alice Draper, the wife of the polio-stricken Chemistry master, Jack Draper; not to mention the crushing atmosphere in the Drapers’ household once La Prade leaves the school for a commission in the Army. In this scene – one that feels so characteristic of Yates’ signature theme of the sham-like nature of marriage – Jack Draper is reflecting on his situation with Alice. The gulf that hangs between them looms large.
“I have to think,” she had explained. “I have to take stock. I have to work a few things out in my mind.”
Well, okay, but what exactly did all that mean? Think about what? Take stock of what? Work what things out in her mind?
And now it was spring. In the evenings, after dinner and before the children’s bedtime, the four of them would sit around the living room in simulation of what real families might be expected to do. He had to admit he was stiff with drink on most of those occasions: he would usually start drinking in the lab in the afternoon and keep it going with heavy shots of bourbon in the kitchen before dinner, and more afterwards. (p. 95)
There is real poignancy and tragedy is Yates’ depiction of the Drapers, a point that is difficult to discuss in more detail without revealing spoilers.
As the book draws to a close and the boys’ thoughts turn to the future, two somewhat connected themes begin to emerge. Firstly, there is the prospect of relationships with girls, something that Grove eagerly anticipates when he hears that the Seniors will be sitting their final exams at Miss Blair’s, the neighbouring girls’ school.
This was a vaguely thrilling prospect. Apart from Gus Gerhardt, who was wholly familiar with the place but wasn’t talking, nobody knew anything about Miss Blair’s except that Edith Stone had graduated from it last year; but didn’t it stand to reason there’d be other girls like her? They’d have long, clean hair and they’d stroll their campus in light flannel skirts and light cardigan sweaters, with their school-books hugged close to their young breasts, and they’d say wonderfully engaging things like “Hi, my name’s Susan”. (p. 139)
Ironically, the boys’ hopes are dashed when they arrive at Miss Blair’s, only to be taunted by the girls’ disparaging chants – rhymes that serve to highlight the external perception of Dorset Academy as a ‘funny school’.
Secondly, there is the shadow of war and its consequences for Grove and his peers. The book is set during the early 1940s, with World War II featuring strongly in the background, a fact that adds a real sense of poignancy and gravity to the narrative, especially towards the end. Immediately following their graduation, the boys will be heading for the forces, uncertain as to what the future will hold for them. All this adds weight to their day-to-day experiences at the school, giving them a sort of grounding for the weeks and months ahead – they can look no further forward than that.
The novel is bookended by a forward and an afterword, both narrated by the adult Grove – a thinly veiled version of Yates himself – which explain how he had come to find himself at Dorset Academy in the first place and what happened to his classmates once they had graduated. The forward in particular is excellent, a deeply personal piece which touches on the younger Grove’s rather distant relationship with his father and the sadness he now feels for him looking back.
This is a book that touches on many themes: the angst of a boy’s teenage years and the pain of growing up; the gulf and disconnect between fathers and sons; the inevitable loss of innocence that will come with the war. There are many more.
From a technical perspective, A Good School may not be Yates’ most accomplished or dramatic book, but it’s still a terrific read. You can read Max’s excellent review of this novel here.
A Good School is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.