A Good School, by Richard Yates
Richard Yates is an underappreciated writer, not forgotten, but not widely read either. The recent film of his classic , Revolutionary Road, may help change that, but I have my doubts.
Revolutionary Road, which I write about here, was Yates’ first novel and is still his best regarded. A good school, which I’ve just finished, is among his least regarded (though a lesser regarded Yates is still better than most writers are capable of).
A good school is dedicated to the memory of Yates’ father, and is thought to be largely autobiographical. It is the story of a second-rate (if that) prep school with beautiful buildings but money problems, the Second World War is looming and against that backdrop Yates explores the lives of the school’s staff and pupils and of one of those pupils in particular – William Groves.
William Groves is not one of the popular boys. He is not good at games, and adolescence is not being kind to him (it is to so few of us). He is subjected to sexual hazing games (which the text does not shy away from), looked down on by the teachers and the book is often at its best when discussing his painful attempts to make friends and fit in.
The novel opens with a first person perspective (rare for Yates), with an unnamed narrator looking back and remembering his father, a once-promising tenor who became and lived his life as “assistant regional sales manager for the Mazda Lamp Division (light bulbs).” There is a sadness to this opening, the narrator’s parents are divorced, there is a distance between father and son, but the father is doing his best and that includes paying for a prep school he can’t really afford but which the mother – persuaded by aspirational dreams and a salesman headmaster – is convinced is the right place for their child. The novel briefly returns to this first person voice at the close, a small reflection on the school and the narrator’s father.
The first person passages provide a viewpoint that is looking back, an authorial voice detached from the immediacy of the main part of the book. That main part, almost all the novel really, is written from a third person perspective but up close, right in the school with the teachers, the boys, all their rituals and dramas. The effect of the shifting narrative voice is to create a distance at the start and end, a perspective, but otherwise to immerse the reader deep within the world of the school. The adult can reflect on what happened, what if anything it meant. The boys don’t have that luxury, they are steeped in a world of direct and pressing experience, fevered immediacy, their only reflections are about how other boys will view them and whether they are fitting in.
Yates is particularly good at capturing the trials of adolescent life, the way for example communal showers become a battleground for asserting status, for glory or humiliation.
Lear had nothing to fear from the scrutiny of the shower room: he might not be as spectacular as Terry Flynn but he was all right, his prick was adequate, and he had powerful, admirably hairy legs. Another thing, he knew better than anyone how to snap a wet towel against the buttocks of other bathers.
A boy who has a large penis, or well developed body hair, he has nothing to fear. A boy though whose genitals aren’t really developed yet, whose pubic hair is arriving late, for him every shower is a trauma, an unavoidable ordeal that cannot be discussed with others even though they share it. In later life, status will be driven by considerations of job, money, possessions, but for now it is driven by issues of physical development, sporting prowess, rumoured success with girls. Popularity is a capricious thing, effortlessly achieved for some, unavailable despite all efforts for others.
The school, Dorset Academy, is near bursting with sexual tension. Masturbation is a fact of life, something one puts up with in roommates and which on occasion is done forcibly to a less-popular boy as a means of humiliating him. Erections are yet another source of embarrassment, rearing up at the most inopportune times and prompted by mere conversation with a girl. The boys fixate on the one girl their age they ever see, Edith Stone, a teacher’s daughter and student at a nearby (but quite inaccessible) girls’ school, they dream of her though few of them ever actually speak to her. Sex is an issue for the teachers too, with the crippled chemistry teacher’s wife sleeping with the French Master. The atmosphere is thick with lust, unsatisfied or illicit.
A good school has a wider focus than did Revolutionary Road. Here, Yates explores a whole school, the lives of several of the teachers and pupils. While William Groves is the focus, his experience the core of the narrative, the novel in the main opts for breadth of coverage rather than depth. That said, Yates still has a precise and unsparing eye which captures characters’ vanities and disappointments in a line. Here he describes a teacher’s wife after a quarrel:
When he’d gone she walked the floor for a long time with one hand at her forehead. She might have cried, except that it almost never occurred to her to cry when she was alone.
What impressed me with A good school was the clarity with which Yates captured those years. My own schooling was as far from Dorset Academy as can be imagined, a trendy inner city comprehensive in London rather than a failing prep school in pre-war Connecticut, but for all that I recognised almost everything. There is a universality of experience here, our schools may differ, but adolescence remains much the same. At one point the novel follows Edith Stone, the school’s lone girl, and her life is not that different to the boys – confused, pulsing with unsatisfied desire, obsessed with her developing body (is her chin alright? She checks in the mirror, repeatedly). She is as they are. To them, she is a mysterious and desirable creature, woman with a capital W, but in fact she is just another child struggling with a changing body and a crush of emotions she barely understands.
The opportunities for hurt, the uncertainty of those years, the sheer physical need for friendship coupled with the fear of showing weakness in front of your peers, I recognised it all and I thought it probably the best depiction of what school is like that I’ve read. We didn’t board at my school, but we had school trips where we had to choose roommates for the cheap hotels booked for us, this is how that went and I’m glad it was just for a fortnight and not for a year:
There was a rule at Dorset that you had to room alone during your first year, having a roommate was a privilege reserved for “old” boys. This made for a good deal of emotional tension every May, when the double-room assignments were given out.
“Hey,” one boy would shyly say to another. “Want to get a room together next year?”
“Well, the thing is I’ve already promised somebody else.”
For a week the quadrangle pulsed with awkward little conversations like that; it was a time of subtle pursuit and hurt feelings and last-minute settlings for second best.
Equally, the following passage reminded me so strongly of when I was a teenager it bordered on painful to read:
Grove spent most of that vacation teaching himself to smoke. He would soon turn seventeen, and he didn’t want to be the fool of the senior club.
First he had to learn the physical side of it – how to inhale without coughing; how to will his senses to accept drugged dizziness as pleasure rather than incipient nausea. Then came the subtler lessons in aesthetics, aided by the use of the bathroom mirror: learning to handle a cigarette casually, even gesturing with it while talking, as if scarcely aware of having it in his fingers; deciding which part of his lips formed the spot where a cigarette might hang most attractively – front and profile – and how best to squint against the smoke in both of those views. The remarkable thing about cigarettes, he discovered, was that they added years to the face that always looked nakedly younger than his age.
By the time of his seventeenth birthday he was ready. His smoking passed the critical scrutiny of his peers – nobody laughed – and so he was initiated.
I didn’t teach myself to smoke. I did, however, have to teach myself how to drink beer. I’d go down the pub when my friends were otherwise occupied, buy a half-pint and force myself to drink it until I got used to the taste. I trained myself to enjoy having a drink, so that I could fit in, so I wouldn’t look childish. To me now, as an adult, that seems bizarre. At the time, it seemed vital.
As the novel continues, Grove starts to find his own place within the school, his own niche. The school’s finances continue to deteriorate, the tensions between the teachers to worsen. For all that, the question remains as to whether it is after all in some sense a good school. Boys who treat each other with appalling cruelty in the early years sometimes find an accommodation, to an extent they simply grow up and become less savage to each other, Groves, though never an academic success, becomes involved with the school newspaper so paving the way for a later career as a writer. Dorset Academy is a lousy school, run by a shyster of a headmaster and with a distinctly dubious reputation and teachers who try to pretend to themselves that it’s a better place than it is, but it is the only school Groves has and lousy as it may be it doesn’t do that badly for him, for all the misery along the way.
A good school is a short novel, under 200 pages, and it’s not at the level of Revolutionary Road. For all that though, it’s well written and it captures the brutality and promise of those years with exceptional skill. It’s a sad novel in many ways, and not always wholly successful (the boys start to get called up as the US enters the war, which is convincing and powerful, but I wasn’t persuaded the novel really needed those elements), but its depiction of school and adolescence is powerful and true and it reminds me how thankful I am to have left those years behind.