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[750] A Good School – Richard Yates


” Never say anything the doesn’t improve on silence. ” (Ch.4, p.90)

A Good School is a short emsemble novel, probably Yates’s more gentle work, charting the last days of a second-rate boarding school, Dorset Academy, in New England on the eves of the Second World War. The narration opens with a foreword in the first person by an anonymous man who reflects to that time and talks about his divorced parents. The father is a salesman for GE and the mother a frustrated sculptress. It’s the mother’s decision to send him to the school for the gentry.

The meandering prose revolves around happenings in the school, not the most prestigious and in the red, and all its quaint Cotswold architecture can’t disguise that fact from the boys. Later in the novel it dawns on the reader that the narrator of the foreword is the hapless William grove, at first a victim of the worst schoolboy humiliations. He is utterly self-conscious, but gradually across the novel, over time, learns to respect his own abilities. Winning an essay contest appoints him to the editorial staff of the school paper, and commands respects from the other boys.

Robert Discroll often assumed himself that Dorset Academy was a good school; even so, there was a nagging qualification: if only it were more like a real school . . . carry that sense of inauthenticity around with them. (Ch.2, p.31)

Indeed, underneath that veneer of an anglophile education is a savage packing order based on money, looks, and athletic skill. Tawdry secrets abound, like the brilliant mind suffering mental depression; the wife of a disabled teacher sleeping with the French instructor, the able athletic getting caught with a younger peer alone in his room.

The fate indiscriminate to everyone is the war, which is not only hungry for the boys but also marks the end of the school. Looming in the background is that inevitable draft into the army for which no education, let alone a prep school, should prepare the pupils. By the end of the novel, Grove comes to terms with his self-consciousness and matures. He reminds us all that is in the past is gone.

A Good School is bittersweet and elegiac. The prose is so simple and yet depicts people so average and readily identifiable. The loneliness and adolescent angst come through beautifully, and there’s that same sense of innocence tested. It’s an enjoyable read but lacking the depth of Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade.

178 pp. Picador. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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