Pub date September 25, 2007

The boarding school novel has long been a droopy flower in the garden of American literature, and its wanness can be explained only in part by the fact that we don’t have many boarding schools. A boarding school is an institution of the elite, a temple of privilege, and since American mythology teaches us that we enjoy a classless society in which any child can go to public school and still become president and/or a millionaire, glimpses of class reality are easily dismissed as both offensive and meaningless.

The British, by contrast — longtime and unconcealed minders of an ornate class topiary — are rich in storied boarding schools and in stories about them. Many of Britain’s greatest writers have been educated at places such as Eton, Harrow, and Rugby and have later written about the experience (Evelyn Waugh in his comic novel Decline and Fall, George Orwell in his lacerating essay "Such, Such Were the Joys," to name two pertinent, if quite different, examples), while even such minor writers as Michael Campbell have made unforgettable contributions. Campbell’s 1967 novel Lord Dismiss Us is an unsung school-days masterpiece; it is also frank about matters of boy love and boy sex to a degree its American counterparts cannot match. Some might regard this as unexpected, considering that the long-running play No Sex Please, We’re British is famous enough to have a Wikipedia entry.

Perhaps the erotic charge of the typical British boys-school story is simply the more pleasant of male physicality’s two faces. The other face is, of course, violence, and in the British tales there is plenty of this to go around, whether as hazing or corporal punishment. The two great American prep school novels, by contrast, John Knowles’s A Separate Peace (1959) and Louis Auchincloss’s The Rector of Justin (1964), offer much less by way of flesh colliding in either joy or enmity, though the moral meaning of the former book does turn on a moment of oblique violence.

Taylor Antrim’s first novel, The Headmaster Ritual (Mariner Books, 320 pages, $13.95 paper), is compared by a jacket blurb with A Separate Peace and, like that earlier work, is set at a New England prep school resembling one of the fabled Phillips academies, but the book describes a world far removed from Knowles’s. In so doing, it gives us a vivid measure of the past half century’s cultural shifts. (Antrim, incidentally, was a frequent contributor to these pages from 1998 to 2004 and is an alumnus of Phillips Andover.) Despite the double entendre title, there isn’t much sex in Headmaster beyond an offstage act of public masturbation — part of a cat-and-mouse exhibitionist game with an intricate scoring system. The hazings, on the other hand, are relentless, brutal, and occasionally ingenious. It takes a black brilliance to conceive of a humiliation that involves filling a humidifier with piss and steaming up some wretched boy’s room with it. "Lacquering" is the genteel term for this ammonia-stink degradation.

Antrim’s Britton School is largely peopled by the privileged: senators’ sons, scions of industrial fortunes, and hoary faculty in old tweed coats. But despite the familiar-looking dramatis personae, there is little sense of noblesse oblige among this elite. The novel’s real theme is survival, and in this respect it is a far closer relation to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), in which a troupe of unsupervised boys descend into savagery, than to any boarding school novel.

Headmaster‘s stakes, accordingly, are both higher and lower than one might expect. Seeing the sun rise again tomorrow over the jungle is about as basic as human hope gets, even if the jungle consists of ivy and smelly humidifiers, but characters who spend most of their time inflicting or enduring gratuitous peer cruelties aren’t going to have much energy left over for the edification of the self or service to others. If the ancient ethos of the American upper classes — "To whom much is given, much is expected" (Luke 12:48) — retains any meaning in this setting of muffled barbarities, it’s only because what is expected is not public mindedness or moral awareness but worldly success: fame, fortune, social position.

Civilization presumes and promotes survival, while "class" used to be — and perhaps still is — a way of referring to behavior that meets a society’s highest standards. The path upward begins with the recognition that tomorrow is another day and you will live to see it; there will be food, water, and shelter, and if human beings have gathered themselves into groups — camps, villages, cities — to provide these essentials, they will also have developed codes of behavior to ensure that things don’t get out of hand in ever closer quarters. Manners are a social lubricant, and it is no coincidence that the most sophisticated sets of manners have evolved on crowded islands: Japan, Britain, even Manhattan, whose closely pressed denizens don’t get enough credit for keeping their elbows in.

Boarding schools are crowded islands too, and (one would think) at least as in need of a social credo as those other places. Classiness matters most in tight situations that tempt our lowest inclinations, and while the classless society might be a fantasy — a phantom visible only in the pages of fiction — the rituals of grace are as real as we care to make them.*