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Book Review: A Good School by Richard Yates

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A Good School is a good, solid novel, but that is about it. While many writers would be so lucky to able to actually have a good novel worthy of publication, A Good School is a bit of a let down, when compared to other works by Richard Yates, but it is still something worth the read.

The novel deals with a boarding school in Connecticut right at the onset of World War II and is told through the first-person narration of William Grove, who was sent there, along with the rest of the other kids, because there wasn’t any other place for them.

The spare writing and the intricacies of the character quirks, typical of Yates’ style, are all present, but this novel lacks the depth of some of his greater works, like that of Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade. A Good School finishes just under 180 pages, and with larger sized font and lots of white space, one can easily read this in a couple of sittings.

Other prep school books that come to mind are of course The Catcher in the Rye and also A Separate Peace, though A Good School did not carry the cultural impact of the former, yet it fortunately lacks some of the melodrama of the latter. A Good School maintains a humorous, upbeat tone, though as a consequence suffers from the lack of depth that some of Yates’ other works carry.

Though some of Yates’ humor can be found here, in the description of the headmaster:

“He was a chilly man, a devious man, a talking smiling public-relations man, and the boys referred to him as Old Bottle-ass because he was tall and fragile-looking, with a high waist and wide hips…Nor could his wife do anything to help his career: she might once have been a pleasant and pretty girl, but now her face was forever set in a numb smile, as if injected in many places with Novocain. Other faculty wives said you could know her for years without hearing her say anything but ‘So nice; so nice’.”

William Grove begins his school journey as somewhat of a loser in the other boys’ eyes, though manages to fit in at the school by joining the school paper. Yet other members of the academy are also not above being teased themselves. A number of the individual boys each are given their own story digression, and the narratives intertwine and always come back to the central point. One boy, Larry Gaines, becomes involved with Edith, the schoolmaster’s daughter, though when he is forced to go off to war, his story ends abruptly, and Yates wastes no time on emotional wording:

“There was little or no training. Less than two weeks after he left school, Larry Gaines signed on and shipped out as one of the thirty-man crew aboard a tanker bound for North Africa and riding low in the sea with its weight of military gasoline.
Ten miles out of New York Harbor, at about two in the morning, for reasons never investigated or explained, the tanker accidentally caught fire and exploded. There were no survivors.”

Yates delivers this news in a matter of fact, almost journalistic manner, which works very well for the tone of the story. While most writers would have described endlessly not only the accident, they would have gone on for pages and pages, digressing on how devastating this all was, etc., but not Yates. He does not waste any words, and he constructs the characters and situations just so, thus allowing readers to build their own assessments.

In my earlier review of The Easter Parade, I noted that there doesn’t seem to be any other writer who can craft losers as well as Yates can, in just the way that he can. His skills lie in the brevity of his style, knowing what to omit, and his often matter of fact storytelling techniques, coupled with great dialogue.

A Good School lacks some of the great, extended dialogue scenes present in his earlier works, so I think of this sort of as Yates-lite. It is still Yates, so it is still likely going to be good, but as a reader of his, I’ve been spoiled by excellence, so I’ve come to expect it every time. A Good School is still an enjoyable, good, solid slice of life novel, and is funny at times. It is also possible that the narrative would have benefited from a third person narrator rather than first, but that can be up for debate.

For any reader new to Yates — I’d definitely go for Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade first, before approaching this. Also, the ending of A Good School is a bit flaccid compared to these other two works, not bad per se, just not as robust. 

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