Richard Yates’ A Good School

It’s very likely that, absent the influence of Hollywood and the star power of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, Richard Yates would have been lost to my generation of readers. When they turned his debut novel, Revolutionary Road, into a movie in 2008, his entire oeuvre was out of print; and despite achieving immense critical success in his lifetime, including vociferous admiration from Tennessee Williams, Kurt Vonnegut, John Cheever and William Styron, not a single one of his books ever achieved “best seller” status. Hollywood made his name familiar to me, and it was on the basis of that familiarity that I pulled A Good School out of a pile at my local library’s annual book sale – a serendipitous choice, it turned out, for this was a powerful introduction to Yates, and a summons to read more of him.

Set at the fictional Dorset Academy prep school in Connecticut during the opening years of the Second World War, A Good School details the lives of the school’s students and faculty with the kind of honest reporting that would have scandalized New England had the book been printed in the early 1940s, rather than 1978. We get a glimpse, for example, at the intricacies of dorm life in an all-boys prep school: the popularity hierarchy, established primarily on the basis of athletic prowess and good looks, and the merciless bullying, often with homoerotic undertones, visited upon the bottom ranks of said hierarchy. At the close of the opening chapter, for example, a new student at the school, William Grove, is held down in his bed by a gang of boys, who proceed to strip him naked from the waist down, shave his pubic hair, and masturbate him. The students are not the only ones committing sexual improprieties. The school’s chemistry teacher, Jack Draper – a cripple, and an object of campus pity – is being cuckolded by the French teacher, Jean-Paul La Prade, a pompous womanizer who treats her like a convenience. Draper is aware of his wife’s infidelity – she sleeps in La Prade’s bed every night – but does nothing but drown his sorrows in liquor. Adding to Dorset Academy’s troubles, on top of lecherous faculty and students, is their growing debt. Without the cachet of the more famous New England prep schools, and forbidden an intercollegiate athletic program (by stipulation of the school’s eccentric founder), they are unable to attract a full student body, let alone one whose families are capable of paying the exorbitant fees without aid. And yet character after character will insist that Dorset is indeed a “good school.”

The novel’s structure also intrigues. It opens with a first-person Forward, giving one boy’s account of how he arrived at the school and how his divorced father – a blue-collar GE worker – took on the burden of the school fees, despite his estrangement from his son. But out unnamed narrator disappears by the opening chapter, replaced with a third-person omniscient perspective, one that roams across the campus, into the dorms, the faculty housing, the staff quarters. Yates takes great interest in the budding friendship between boys, particularly those who are clumsy or socially awkward; he will frequently compare these developing friendships to “falling in love,” and indeed they require a level of vulnerability from the boys – boys accustomed to hostile treatment from everyone, and therefore who view vulnerability with fear – that approaches the demands of romantic love. Yates limns these friendships with genuine sympathy and attention to detail, and intensifies them with the unusual background of America at war. Some of the boys at Dorset Academy will go to war willingly; some will be conscripted; others will prolong their service by continuing their educations. But the fact remains that their time at prep school constitutes a very real sanctuary, against the outside world and mortal danger, and you can sense that Yates – a writer famous for torturing his characters – feels intense sympathy for their circumstances.

No doubt that sympathy stems from his own experiences at Avon Old Farms School, the real-life model for Dorset Academy, which Yates attended during the war years, supported by his own middle-class father. And like his protagonist William Grove, Yates began his writing career working for the school newspaper, turning out regular copy and submitting himself to the humbling process of peer editing. Yates communicates that sympathy to the reader brilliantly, evoking the particulars of time and place with as much skill as John Knowles in A Separate Peace, and with much the same result: a novel of lasting beauty.