(Vintage e-book 2007, originally published in USA 1978)
There has been a resurgence of interest in Richard Yates of late years, fuelled by the film of his first novel Revolutionary Road with Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio. I’ve not read Revolutionary Road, but instead picked A Good School for its boarding school setting. The foreword begins with the unnamed narrator (Yates himself?) describing his parents’ divorce, and the circumstances under which his mother decided to send her son to Dorset Academy (though paid for by his father), a prep school in Connecticut.
The novel proper begins with a description of Terry Molloy, and from there hovers, like a cinematic tracking shot, over various denizens of Dorset Academy, students and teachers alike. It’s set in the early years of World War Two, before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the school is the brainchild of the wealthy but very eccentric Abigail Church Hooper, who founded it some twenty years previously. Despite her generosity, the school is losing money, and Alcott Knoedler, the headmaster, is so desperate for students that many of them pay only half fees.
It’s some way into the novel that we realise that the protagonist is William Grove – a not very likeable boy whose only interests are writing, and who is not interested in most subjects other than English. But Yates prefers not to concentrate on one person, instead showing us the stories of the intense and sometimes antagonistic friendships between the boys, and the relationships between the masters and their wives. No-one is entirely likeable: Grove is desperate to be taken seriously by two more senior boys; there is a lot of bullying going on; the French master is sleeping with Alice Draper, wife of the chemistry teacher, who is himself half crippled by polio. Draper isn’t likeable either, though one feels a great deal of sympathy for him in his furious hatred of his weakness and his wife’s infidelity.
There’s not much plot, as such, no driving character arc, and as such the passage of time is indistinct. Relationships change, events happen, one or two of the characters deal with life-changing events, but, at the close of the novel the leaving students seem not to be really adult, still kids, totally unfitted for life in the armed forces, the almost inevitable fate for them during wartime. Despite the apparent drawbacks, I found this a very readable and interesting novel. Yates’ prose is simple and yet evocative, conveying clearly the agonised emotions and vulnerability of the people portrayed. I felt compelled to keep reading, if only because Yates seems to understand his characters so well, ensuring that even the most unsympathetic of them have real human flaws or moments of likeability. I suppose as a novel set in an all-boys’ boarding school that the author is preoccupied with male experiences, though Yates does touch lightly on a few of the women or girls present as wives or daughters of the teachers; they’re largely sketched over, however, and he doesn’t give us much insight into their behaviour or thoughts as he does the main male characters.
This is a curious novel; is it autobiographical? Yates himself attended a prep school, Avon Old Farms School in Connecticut, but the brief biographical details on Wikipedia don’t indicate whether it was as eccentric as Dorset Academy, the school portrayed in this novel. Yates’s parents were divorced, like Grove’s, and, like Grove, first became interested in writing at school.
A Good School is a far cry from the boarding school books written for children, written from an adult perspective, looking back, and from a number of different characters’ viewpoints, with serious and adult issues tackled, such as bullying, alcoholism and sexuality (both of the adult and adolescent varieties). It’s not an upbeat or life-affirming story, though perhaps it does show how even the most apparently unpromising of adolescent environments can function as encouragement or valuable experience.