Reading Richard Yates is like having a deeply satisfying conversation with someone you don’t know very well, someone you never thought of as a friend. But that person speaks to you as if there were no barrier between your mind and his. He doesn’t have to censor his thoughts and he doesn’t expect anything from you.
A Good School has been republished as a Vintage Classic and a classic school story it is. Yates uses the interesting device of making you unsure at first who his central character is. The foreword is in the voice of a young teenager who is about to go to Dorset Academy and the afterword is in his voice as a man. What we don’t know for some time is which of the boys he is – is he Terry Flynn with the face of an angel and the body of an athlete, William Grove, a gangly dreary-looking boy of about fifteen, or Hugh Britt, admirably quiet and self-sufficient? The boy of the Foreword reveals himself to us without artifice, but now we can’t recognise him. The boys live by a primitive but elaborate code of behaviour that makes some top dogs and some victims, and that’s all you see at first. But of course they all have inner lives, even the apparently perfect Terry Flynn, and that’s what we see as we follow them through the next three years, right up to the time that some of them enlist after Pearl Harbour.
Dorset is not a “good school” in the eyes of society. It’s actually a bit of a joke. The teachers know it, but jobs are hard to come by and they make the best of it. There’s no one here who terrorises or molests the boys; it’s just a group of men with narrow horizons by character or circumstance. The failures and disappointments in their lives give them a forbearance that lets the boys get on with the worst of adolescence and doesn’t make it any worse.
Some of the boys and teachers have tragedies in their lives, but they all fall into the stream of life with barely a ripple. That’s a very Yates feeling, sad but not self-pitying, sensitive to individual suffering but knowing how small it is in the flow of time.
The book ends as it began with the image of the narrator’s father, who hoped to become a professional singer but had to to settle for life as assistant regional sales manager for the Mazda Lamp Division. In later years, when pressed to sing, he would take a backward step and make a little negative wave of the hand, smiling and frowning at the same time: all that, he seemed to say – “Danny Boy”; the years upstate; singing itself – all that was in the past.