THE HEADMASTER RITUAL
By Taylor Antrim
309 pp. Paperback, $13.95
The only good thing about the first year of teaching is that it can happen to you only once. Through a haze of cringing horror, I remember when I insisted that Ring Lardner was a fictional character, made fun of a deaf student, reduced a recently orphaned girl to tears, and, while swaying dramatically behind a wooden lectern, drove a long splinter through my pants and into my groin.
But Dyer Martin, the hero of The Headmaster Ritual, has it even worse. Fleeing a dead-end relationship and a disastrous stint as a real estate developer, he signs on as a history teacher at the prestigious Britton school -- "a game preserve for New England Wasps." His first year involves fights, cheating, embezzlement and international terrorism. This is Taylor Antrim's first novel, and, like a promising new teacher, he tries some clever things, borrows from his colleagues and makes a couple of notable missteps.
The story follows young Dyer from his buoyant arrival in the fall to his exhausted and chastened finish nine months later. From the start, he's not sure why he was hired by Dr. Edward Wolfe, Britton's fanatical new headmaster. The dean assures Dyer that they "want young, less traditionally trained teachers," but there's something unnerving, even sinister about Wolfe, who boasts about his SDS membership and his appearance on J. Edgar Hoover's enemies list. Although he says he's determined to "create a school hostile to orthodoxy and friendly to dissent," he seems to want teachers he can mold and control.
At their first meeting, rather than classes, textbooks or students, Wolfe talks to Dyer about North Korea and the United States' belligerent provocation of that brave little country. "Don't capitalist nations tend inevitably toward war?" the headmaster asks. When they move on to his duties in the dorm, Wolfe keeps on the same Maoist theme: "Discipline is a question for the collective." And just as Dyer finally escapes from the office, the headmaster asks him to attend his Korean exercises in the morning. All this would excite anybody's spider sense, but first-year teachers are a mess of anxieties, and Dyer has classes to prepare for, papers to grade, more than enough to keep him off guard about the intentions of his commie headmaster.
There are good opportunities for a satire here or even a prep school thriller. Why does Dr. Wolfe insist that Dyer take a group of students to the United Nations? Who is that Asian man meeting with him late at night? But those angles never evolve in a very interesting way. Besides, Antrim wants to write a separate piece about an alienated young student at this prestigious boarding school, and so a parallel (and better) story develops about the headmaster's son, James. He's a sharp student who just wants to finish up and graduate without attracting too much attention, but he endures a steady stream of brutal and scatological assaults from the other boys in the dorm. He wouldn't dream of ratting them out, and he knows his father wants to toughen him up anyhow. It's a sensitive portrait of a smart young man essentially abandoned by both his parents, who are either too busy or too ideologically blinded to see what's happening.
Powerless and friendless, James wonders if the erratic behavior of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, might serve as a model to earn some kind of respect. "All his life," Antrim writes, "James had been predictable -- polite, studious, adaptable -- and where had it gotten him? Isolated from his parents and manipulated by [other students]. There was freedom in invisibility, but if James couldn't be invisible, he could be volatile." This insightful blending of geopolitical conflict and teenage angst gives the novel real emotional depth.
Unfortunately, the other students in The Headmaster Ritual remain entirely one-dimensional, straight from those corny movies that pit geeks against jocks. And that calls into question the novel's setting: "the oldest, most selective prep school in the country." Puleeze, that's enough to curl the ivy on Groton's walls. Antrim attended Andover as a boy, but here he doesn't begin to convey the complex social, political and intellectual culture of such a place. He throws in some crown molding and a senator's son, but those shorthand details are meager, and they're contradicted by a number of annoying incongruities: The students in Dyer's classes sound lazy and inarticulate (they should be making fun of him in Latin); the athletic program looks lax and undisciplined; the school's fundraising program is haphazard and disorganized.
In short, there's nothing about this weird little school to suggest that it enjoys the kind of national prominence of, say, Phillips Exeter, which is what's necessary for the novel's outrageous conclusion to work. By the end, we're left with two or three interesting parts that don't cohere in a very satisfying way. Impressive for a first-year effort, but it won't make the required reading list. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.