School for Scandal

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, January 15, 2006


A Novel

By Joanne Harris

Morrow. 422 pp. $24.95

I'm new to Washington, but my stint as a teacher at a wealthy prep school was good preparation for the capital's weird mix of idealism and cynicism, equality and privilege, principle and corruption. The tightly closed atmosphere of those hallowed halls, so richly scented with money and charged with all that adolescent sexuality -- like an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue come to life in the library -- creates a fertile culture for scandal. During a particularly bleak year in St. Louis, where I taught, the three most august academies weathered at least two ruinous affairs between teachers and students and one murder. Those tragedies don't appear in any of the lovely brochures, but gossip clings to these expensive schools as tenaciously as ivy.

Of course, you don't need to spend $20,000 a year to learn this. It's the bread and butter of novels about prep schools, which most of us taste for the first time in John Knowles's pompous tale of repressed homosexuality, A Separate Peace . If ever a novel deserved to be knocked off the curriculum, it's this one, and Joanne Harris may finally have shaken the branch hard enough to do it. Her irresistible Gentlemen & Players conjures up the ivory towers of an old private school with all the tradition, pride and moldy resentment such places cultivate generation after generation.

Constantly surprising and wickedly fun, this revenge tale is told by two narrators in alternating chapters that begin at the start of the school year at St. Oswald's Grammar School for Boys in England. The first narrator, a hypnotically nasty Iago, introduces himself by saying, "If there's one thing I've learned in the past fifteen years, it's this: that murder is really no big deal." A precocious, desperately lonely child, he grew up on the campus of St. Oswald's (his alcoholic father was the groundskeeper), and for years he nursed a bitter desire to cross the threshold and enter that "unattainable glory," like "Xanadu . . . Asgard and Babylon all in one," where "young gods lounged and cavorted." Alienated from his rough public-school mates, he gradually insinuated himself into St. Oswald's, at first just sneaking onto campus for athletic games but then (dressed in a stolen uniform) taking more daring forays into the buildings, the library, even the classrooms, sometimes handing in essays and joining school photos. "All I wanted, you see, was to belong ," he claims. But of course, that's impossible, and the inevitable failure of his dream has now brought him back to the school disguised as a new teacher, determined to destroy St. Oswald's through a curriculum of vandalism, sabotage and murder.

The second narrator, Roy Straitley, introduces himself as the "Old Centurion of the School." After 10 years as a student at St. Oswald's, he's spent 33 more teaching Latin, holed up in the Bell Tower like Quasimodo, beloved by clever students, remembered by nostalgic alumni and grudgingly tolerated by efficient, new administrators. Harris gets everything about prep-school culture just right, from the "genteel decrepitude" to the classic figures who serve on every faculty and the comic mingling of high ideals and petty power plays. But she's particularly brilliant with Straitley, who knows he's "like a rather dull first edition no one quite dares to throw away." Every good academy has one: the ironic iconoclast who is nevertheless the very spirit of the place, waging a lonely battle against computers, maintaining the school's traditions and opposing the headmaster's acquiescence to market pressures.

Straitley doesn't know it, but he's been cast as the white knight in an infiltrator's deadly game. It begins with a few harmless annoyances -- a lost grade book, a missing coffee mug -- but then the problems start to multiply and grow more ominous. At first, Straitley doesn't notice the pattern; he's too concerned with the headmaster's subtle efforts to retire him. But then poisonous arguments erupt between faculty and students; serious charges are leveled; vandals strike; a boy vanishes. Straitley struggles to parry these thrusts, but he doesn't even know who his opponent is -- and eventually, in a dazzling feat of narrative trickery, neither do we.

Beyond the book's considerable entertainment value, Harris has written an unsettling reminder of how much our orderly lives depend on a fragile level of trust. Little grains of dishonesty and malice sprinkled in the gears of an organization are almost impossible to detect but can bring down the whole structure. Ironically, the saboteur's most deadly tool is computer security, so trusted by everyone that, in the wrong hands, it shreds reputations without any opposition.

As the battle at St. Oswald's continues, shifting from annoyances to embarrassments to scandals to first-degree crimes, we hear more and more about the intruder's bitterly unhappy childhood and the roots of his fiendish hatred for this well-heeled culture. From the start of her career, Harris has explored class issues with a smart, witty touch (consider the conflicts in Chocolat and Coastliners ), but she's never come closer than she does here to the arrogance of privilege and the malignancy of envy.

Bouncing between one narrator's maniacal strategy and the Old Centurion's desperate defense, I was hooked from the first page; by the midpoint, I was racing along as though it were a timed exam, as desperate to catch the clues as I was to find out if St. Oswald's -- or at least Roy Straitley -- would survive. Even the talented Mr. Ripley would find himself outclassed by the twists and turns Harris serves up here. At the end, you'll gasp so loudly the librarian will throw you out. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company