Tuesday, June 13, 2006
By Andrew Trees
Bloomsbury. 246 pp. $22.95
It's possible that there's a more repellent place than the tiny world of Manhattan private schools, but it's not easy to imagine one. It is, according to the author of this most amusing first novel, "an ethical wonderland in which up is down, and right is wrong." He continues:
"It is a place where a powerful Wall Street broker is willing to manipulate the stock market on behalf of people still using sippy cups, so I think it is safe to say that it is a world where things have gone awry . . . an elaborate system designed to ensure that children end up in the right nursery school so that they can attend the right elementary school so that they can gain entrance to the high school Ivy League so that they can gain admission to the actual Ivy League. What happens after that seems to be superfluous. And the pressure only grows as the children get older, until you find yourself face to face with a student or, worse, a parent who believes that changing the B+ you have just given to an A- will somehow be the difference between Harvard and South Dakota Community College."
So argues John Spencer, the narrator of "Academy X" and a teacher of English at said academy. He is single, thirtysomething, an outsider on rich Manhattan's tight little island, a Chicagoan who came East. He is self-effacing if not outright self-mocking, a professed underachiever; his PhD dissertation hasn't been completed and probably never will be, but pretending to work on it allows him "to present myself as a writer, while not actually having to write, which was just about the best of all possible worlds." He has "always cultivated a low profile," especially with regard to the money-grubbing men and women in the academy's administrative offices, but as events unfold in this quite delicious tale, that changes.
It changes primarily because of a senior named Caitlyn Brie, "handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition." Spencer, a devotee of Jane Austen, fancies that Caitlyn is "Emma to my Knightley -- not as some dirty old man lusting after one of his students, as some of you are probably thinking. As a kind of mentor, someone who would teach her to be a little less haughty and a little more humane." She is also a spoiled brat and a sexpot who wears "wispy thongs" that Spencer can't help seeing from the front of the classroom -- "at least on the days that she decided to wear any underwear at all."
Caitlyn is a good deal more attractive than most of her fellow students and a little bit brighter, but she attends a school in which "some students' 'allowance' consisted of twenty thousand dollars or more deposited in their own checking account at the start of the school year," in which everyone cheats and in which high maintenance parents endlessly bully teachers. One, for example, "had questioned my intelligence, my competence as a teacher, and my masculinity all in the service of moving his daughter from a B+ to an A-."
For all of these dreadful people, parents and children alike, the Ivy League is the be-all and end-all, and nothing is beneath them when it comes to getting there. Caitlyn has been accepted by Wesleyan, itself no slouch when it comes to signing on the pampered sons and daughters of the Masters of the Universe, but now Caitlyn has decided that she really wants Princeton. So Spencer is called into the office of the head of the college counseling department -- it was called the admissions department until "a disgruntled parent . . . sued the school on the grounds that the name implied an ability to get students admitted to college" -- and told to do her a favor. Or else.
The head is "a tall, heavy, sweaty man with lank black hair [who] used his size to full effect." His name -- yes! -- is Phil Snopes, and when it comes to sliminess and bully-ragging he puts his Faulknerian namesakes in the shade. He tells Spencer to write a letter to Princeton -- "Something about how you have seen incredible development over the course of the last year. That she is possibly the best English student you have encountered. You know the sort of thing I am looking for" and, when Spencer evinces faint signs of compunction, lays a couple of courtside tickets to a New York Knicks basketball game on him.
Spencer thinks that "we had all been playing roles in an Austen novel," but it turns out that Dickens -- not the warm and fuzzy Dickens, but the hard and cold-eyed one -- is at the wheel. Spencer's life spins steadily downward as events, and people, conspire against him. The chairman of the English Department, a maddeningly self-congratulatory old fool, decides to retire and chooses Spencer as his successor, but snakes immediately arise from the academic grass, and the promotion suddenly is endangered. Spencer casts longing eyes on "soft and creamy Amy Grancourt, a long-legged, blond-haired gazelle recently hired to work in the library," and actually manages to wangle a couple of dates with her, but soon enough it becomes apparent that she is systematically taking him to the cleaners.
Then there is Caitlyn, who will let nothing stand between her and the Promised Land, aka Princeton. She enters an essay competition and she does what she has to do -- cheat -- to reach the finals. What happens after that is for the reader to discern, but suffice it to say that Caitlyn is no Emma. Spencer teaches Austen's novel in his senior English class and urges his students to ponder its message -- "To learn how to be a good person, how to lead a good life" -- but that doesn't interest Caitlyn in the least. She wants what she wants, all her life she has gotten what she wants, and soon enough Daddy shows up to apply the squeeze.
It's delicious, malicious stuff. Toward the end the novel settles for melodrama, albeit with tongue in cheek, and its final pages stretch credulity a bit farther than it's willing to go, but none of that matters. As one who grew up as the son of a private-school headmaster -- yes, in more genteel days and in a quiet environment far from Manhattan -- I am well acquainted with parents whose children exist primarily as extensions of themselves, as well as with children who have been turned into monsters by the lethal combination of parental neglect and parental indulgence. "Academy X" gets all of this exactly right, and skewers all guilty parties -- parents, children, teachers, administrators and, worst of all, Ivy League admissions officers -- just as they deserve to be skewered.
Advance proofs of "Academy X" identified its author only as Anonymous, who "currently teaches at a private school in New York City." Now, with the school year at its end, he comes forth as Andrew Trees, a history teacher at the Horace Mann School. Whether this initial deception was meant to protect his job or to stir up a bit of advance publicity is unclear, but it really doesn't matter. "Academy X" may be minor stuff, a literary bauble, but it is also smart, on-target and very funny. It just about defines "beach book," and that's meant as a compliment.