A Good School by Richard Yates

If somehow, there came a time when I was *forced* to rank the novels of Richard Yates, I would probably place A Good School at the bottom of my list.

A Good School is one of Yates’s later novels and considered the most autobiographical. While his earlier novels focused on the anxieties of modern suburban life, A Good School examines the awkwardness and pain of teenage boy, William Grove.

William is trying desperately to fit into his new boarding school, Dorset Academy. Located in leafy Connecticut, Dorset appears to be a ‘good school’, however it lacks history, prestige and is on the brink of financial collapse –

Dorset Academy had a wide reputation for accepting boys who, for any number of reasons, no other school would touch.

William’s story is told alongside those of some of Dorset’s teaching staff and their families, particularly Jack Draper, whose wife is cheating on him with one of his colleagues; and Edith Stone, the daughter of the English master. As their personal struggles play out, so to do the financial problems of the school and, on the broader scale, the final stages of WWII – many Dorset Academy graduates are bound for the armed forces.

In A Good School, Yates captures the fleetingness of teenage relationships, and how things can turn from devastating to wonderful in a moment. There is a timelessness to both William and Edith’s experiences – insecurities about feelings, your body, your friendships; the power of the bully and equally the ‘popular boy/girl’; how hopes or doom is pinned to particular events – this is the teenage experience, whether you are at an all-male prep school in the 1940s or a Melbourne high school in the 1980s.

…he’d come to adopt a chronic posture of humiliation.

For a week the quadrangle pulsed with awkward little conversations… it was a time of subtle pursuit and hurt feelings and last-minute settlings for second best.

It is in the adult relationships that we see the Yates that I love the most – he never holds back from writing about our deepest insecurities or the bedrock of our darkest thoughts – shame.

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.

The most interesting element of the novel is the foreword (narrated by the adult William). It sets the emotional context for the novel, particularly William’s reflections on the distant relationship with his father, who was once a promising tenor but then, divorced and having to pay for William’s schooling becomes an ‘assistant regional sales manager for the Mazda Lamp Division (light bulbs).‘ That job is as grim and unfulfilling as it sounds. In this father, we see the type of character that is Yates’s bread-and-butter – disconnected, and yearning for more but unable to articulate it. Is this brief foreword the most telling about Yates’s own life? Perhaps.

3/5 Solid (note: this book comes with a trigger warning regarding bullying and sexual hazing).

It soon became clear, as Driscoll took small sips of the powerful highball set before him, that Draper must have been boozing here for some time. He wasn’t drunk, exactly, but he had drunk himself into the kind of expansive mood that made him apt to say the first crazy thing that came into his head.

6 responses

    • Agree – Anita Brookner is the same.

      I have Yates’s biography – A Tragic Honesty by Blake Bailey – in my reading stack but it’s a massive 660+ pages – not sure how much tragedy I need!

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