What with the hype surrounding Richard Yates’ more famous first novel, Revolutionary Road, and the film of the same name, I thought I might see what all the fuss was all about. And because I didn’t want to dive straight into his most famous novel, I thought I’d start with this one. I won a competition with Vintage Classics, who gave me 5 free books. This is the first one I’ve read.
Dorset Academy is a prep school for young boys who want to go to college, in the north-east of America. Set during the Second World War, the school itself is under threat from a lack of funding, and from self-implosion. The staff are all sleeping with each other (or with other people’s wives), and the boys are rowdy, and there’s a lot of hazing going on. And yet, this is their home.
To be honest, this is probably not the most original novel in the world. The boarding school novel has been done again and again by so many people, it takes someone with some pretty special skill to lift it out of the tired genre that it is. And while Yates doesn’t perhaps do anything too whizz-bang with it, it’s still a pretty good story. I think that Yates’ own experiences are, obviously, an integral part in how this novel came to be, and you quickly work out who the stand-in for Yates is supposed to be. At the beginning, William Groves is not a particularly likeable character, and while he does mellow a bit at the end, he remains a little annoying right to the end. I wonder if Yates is too harsh on himself – the adult in all of us cringes most at the activites of our younger self.
There are a few stand out characters that make this book something a little different, however. The polio-ridden Jack Draper makes for an interestingly emasculated husband, who can’t even prevent his wife from having an affair with the French master is a man who, by all rights, should not survive in a school like this, with boys that are pretty insane. His attempt to take his own life at the end of the novel is perhaps the perfect ending – he can’t even take his own life, because he has been broken by the school and by the people that inhabit it.
I should probably also talk about the students themselves, whose dramas are the lifeblood of the novel. All the school politics and bickerings are a normal part of any boarding school, but Yates goes one step further than what many people do – there’s a lot of sex and sex acts in this novel. It’s all pretty harmless, but I certainly would not want to live in this school. One particular act of hazing involving pinning the new boy down and pullig his pants down is particularly nasty. What makes some of this even worse is that one of the teachers decides to send his own disappointing son to the school, he discovers all of these acts, and still can’t do anything.
A Good School is an easy read, and it’s pretty enjoyable. I hope it’s not Yates’ finest moment (and I don’t think it is), because there’s not a great deal of substance to it. It’s pretty good though, and Yates’ entry into this genre stands up there. I do still want to read Revolutionary Road, though.