Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Headmaster Ritual

Review of Taylor Antrim’s debut novel, The Headmaster Ritual. Was in the Toronto Star last summer.

Even more than a regular high school, the boarding school must present an alluring setting for novelists: the usual teenage bellows and whimpers echo all the louder through close quarters, the air of oppression is all the thicker, the yearning for escape even more intense. So it goes in those old standbys A Separate Peace and The Catcher in the Rye, and – more recently and more Canadianly – in David Gilmour’s 1999 novel Lost Between Houses. In the typical boarding school tale, teachers and other adults are distinctly secondary players, there to encourage or to oppose; the implication is that the kids are the really interesting ones, since their personalities and ethics are still in the process of solidifying.

The Headmaster Ritual, the debut novel from American journalist Taylor Antrim, is a typical boarding school tale in many ways. It takes place at a tony Massachusetts institute, and one of its major characters is James Wolfe, a shy, sensitive senior who’s bullied by his yahoo jock classmates and yearns for an unreachable popular girl – and who also happens to be the headmaster’s son, however chilly and distant his relationship with dad may be.

The other major character, though, is a teacher, Dyer Martin. When we meet Dyer in a prologue, he’s not long out of university, he’s living in Los Angeles, and he’s working for his girlfriend’s father’s real estate firm as an apprentice dealmaker. But he’s just been conned into committing half a million dollars of his company’s money for a worthless patch of land, and he fears he’s about to be fired. So Dyer runs: he leaves the job and the girlfriend and flees across the country to an entry-level post as a history instructor at the Britton School.

As that suggests, Britton’s rookie teacher is pretty callow himself, still finding his way in the world. He also has hs own daddy issues, having been raised by his mother after his father abandoned the two of them. So The Headmaster Ritual is a coming-of-age story, but a dual one: over the course of a year at Britton, both Dyer and James endure ordeals and embarrassments that eventually make them stronger. Some of the book’s most affecting scenes are near-stock scenarios of swaggering students bullying sensitive ones in the classroom or on the soccer field – but they’re presented from Dyer’s point of view, capturing his bewilderment and helplessness.

Antrim also plays with conventional notions of the boarding school as some cloistered environment that magnifies petty personal dramas while holding off the wider world. The novel’s action takes place amid news headlines about nuclear posturing from North Korea and vague threats of repercussions from the U.S. Antrim walks a couple of careful lines here: the political stuff gives the book a timely frisson without unduly tethering it to the headlines, and the geopolitics aren’t there just for texture, but are integrated into the main action. That’s because Edward Wolfe, Britton’s headmaster (and James’ aforementioned aloof father) is an aging lefty radical – and an open and fervent North Korea sympathizer.

Wolfe is an enigmatic and imperious presence, with an agenda that pulls in both Dyer and James and drives the novel’s main engine of suspense. The headmaster takes a special interest in Dyer’s senior world history class and press-gangs the young teacher into recruiting several students – including James – to form a delegation for a mock United Nations conference in New York City. Wolfe then ensures that the Britton group will represent North Korea at the event, and as it draws nearer he appears to be having secret meetings with a mysterious Korean man.

All this political intrigue is well paced and well played. I’ll avoid spilling further details, but suffice to say that the conspiracy of course comes to a boil at that mock UN meeting. And while the climactic events are a little outlandish, they don’t overpower the characters’ stories, but rather complement and bolster them. James’s flickering allegiances and resentments in particular are well handled throughout the novel: he’s tormented by an unfulfilled crush and by a tough-guy friend who acts alternately as bully and protector. These relationships play out in intriguing ways, and Antrim resists the temptation to simplify things for the sake of resolution.

He has a little more trouble with his older protagonist, though. Dyer’s relationship with his mother and abortive romance with a fellow teacher seem stiff, perfunctory. And in spots like that, the novel especially suffers from Antrim’s workaday prose, which lacks a certain unpredictable spark. Overall, though, The Headmaster Ritual is an unusually satisfying first novel.

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