A Good School by Richard Yates

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.

34 thoughts on “A Good School by Richard Yates

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. Yes, the ending is rather poignant without being overly dramatic or sentimental. I also found the Drapers’ story very affecting – that said, you sort of sense that things aren’t going to end very well for certain characters in a Richard Yates novel.

      It’s interesting to hear that you started with this one as it’s less well known than some of his others. Did you go on to read more of him after that?

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          The Easter Parade, definitely The Easter Parade. I think it’s my favourite so far (although Rev Road comes a pretty close second). I also loved the short stories in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, a collection that turned out to be relatively diverse in spite of the unifying themes.

          I’ll be interested to see what you make of Disturbing the Peace. It’s not my favourite Yates (the storyline lacks a bit of focus), but it does contain some priceless scenes.

  1. Jonathan

    I wouldn’t normally choose to read a book set in a school but this one sounds good. Of course it’s by Yates so it should be. I feel like reading some more Yates but my next one will probably be ‘Eleven Kinds of Loneliness’ as I have a copy here.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I wouldn’t normally go for this type of novel either, but Yates was the big drawn here. As you say, he’s such a good writer that it’s hard to go wrong. He’s brilliant at capturing the anxieties and challenges of being a kid. (I felt that with some of the stories in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, too.) The scenarios and emotions he describes seem so believable and realistic.

  2. heavenali

    This sounds superb. I rather like school settings for novels and I have meant to read more Yates for a long time. The only one I have read to date is Easter Parade.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’m sure you would appreciate this one, Ali. Even though it’s not in the same league as something like The Easter Parade, it’s still very good – extremely well-written as you would expect from Yates.

  3. realthog

    Not an author I’ve ever explored: you make him sound like a must-read, so I’ll certainly take a further look. Thanks for, as always, expanding my horizons!

    Mind you, I think I went to that school . . .

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Well I’m glad I didn’t go to that school or anything like the girls’ equivalent. What a baptism of fire that could have been.

      As for Yates, he’s definitely worth a look. For you, I would recommend his debut novel, Revolutionary Road – and in this case, the book is so much better than the film!

  4. 1streading

    I think your final comment sums it up perfectly – it’s not Yates’ best novel but there is something worthwhile in all his writing. Probably the autobiographical nature of this also has an appeal if you are a fan of his (as I am).

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s not his most polished novel, but there is something very absorbing about it. Maybe it’s the emotions he captures as she seems to have such a deep understanding of the frailties of human nature. As you say, the autobiographical nature of the story adds another dimension.

      Have you read Blake Bailey’s biography of Yates? I’m not a big reader of memoirs unless I’m super-interested in the person in question, but that one certainly appeals.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No worries, Karen. I had a feeling you weren’t a Yates fan. Maybe he’s just not your writer? Life would be very dull if we all liked the same things!

      1. bookbii

        Sporadic presence is definitely better than nothing, but I also understand the need to strip back on online interaction. You have to do what’s best for you. I think everyone understands that. Anyway, it’s nice to see your thoughtful blogs again, however sporadic they are. Everything is good with me, thanks. I’ve also cut back on the book reviewing and blogging generally.

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, it can be hard to maintain a presence around here when real life takes an unexpected turn. Anyway, I’m glad to hear that all’s well with you – that’s good to know!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Gert. I do think he’s worth a try – for the quality of his writing if nothing else. The short stories would give you (or any new reader) a pretty good idea of his style and favourite themes.

  5. Guy Savage

    I have The Easter Parade yet to get to, and it sounds better than this one. Plus I’ve really slowed down my book buying, so when I get to Yates it will be The Easter Parade first.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That sounds like a good call to me. I would definitely recommend The Easter Parade ahead of this one. A Good School certainly has it’s moments, but EP is in a different league. The way he captures the small tragedies of life is just masterful.

  6. Caroline

    I have never hear of this one either. It’s a bit of a departure from his other novels. I think there are a few short stories in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness with a school setting. I still haven’t finished the collection.
    Another great review, Jacqui. It seems you’re really back. :)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. I’m here for now, but who knows what will happen in the future. I still don’t have a clear idea of what’s been going on recently, so we’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, I’m enjoying being back!

      Yes, you’re right about some of the stories in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness focusing on the agonies of childhood and difficulties at school. He does children/teenagers very well, probably by reaching back into his own life for inspiration and relevant experiences. I’m not a big reader of biographies in general, but I’d be willing to make an exception for Yates – it would be interesting to understand a little more about the links between his life and his fiction.

  7. Max Cairnduff

    Excellent review, and thanks for the link. It is a lesser Yates, but still very affecting as you bring out. Even lesser Yates is rather good Yates I find…

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Max. I’m glad you reviewed it the first place as your piece definitely helped to get it on my radar. As you say, even a lesser Yates is still very good. I’ve also been reading some of his stories from Liars in Love fairly recently, and while they might not be quite as stellar as the pieces in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, they’re still a step ahead of many other writers’ short fiction. I’m enjoying them more than the stories in James Salter’s Last Night.

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