In Peace Breaks Out , John Knowles revisits Devon School, the New Hampshire prep school that provided the setting for his 1950s best seller, A Separate Peace . Perceptively and sensitively written, A Separate Peace movingly chronicled the struggle between two adolescents who, too young to enlist, discover the enemy not in Europe or in the Pacific, but in themselves. Unfortunately, Knowles' new novel lacks the power and tightly wrought structure of his earlier work.
The time of Peace Breaks Out is September 1945; the war has ended, and veteran Pete Hallam returns to his alma mater to teach Ameican history. From the beginning the book disappoints. As a verteran, Pete must of necessity reflect on his experiences at the front, but those reflections are gratuitous, vague and literary. His anguish is reported and cursorily analyzed rather than felt.
Knowles' intentions are lofty. Like W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, C. Day Lewis and other British writers who just missed the Great War, Knowles hopes to dissect the fear and loathing of a new lost genration, those for whom the second Great War ended too soon. But Knowles' adolescents strike the reader as neither lost nor alientated, but quite normal. Rowdy, well-fed, friendly, decitful, charming, they cut sports, detest The Scarlet Letter , affect sophistication, and cruelly bait one another.
The irony of Knowles' title is that in the postwar era peace does not exist. Like the adolescents fo A Separate Peace, and the youngsters of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Knowles' characters find that the battlefied is within. Wexford, a precocious, manipulative and indulged Devon senior, delcares war on the scholarly, Germanic Hochschwender, who in Pete's first class proclaims his abhorrence of America. At once Hochschwender is labeled a Nazi sympathizer, and both students and reader await the inevitable explosion.
Instead of breaking into open conflict, the novel smolders interminably. Knowles takes the reader through two extraneous ski trips, Wexford's superrflurous jaunt to New York (vaguely reminiscent of Holden Caulfield's sojourn), severl issues of the school newspaper that any right-minded headmaster in the '40s would have instantly and justifiably scotched, and a number of vapid dialogues between students and between students and teachers. Finally a climax nears as Wexford spearheads a drive to raise funds for a window in honor of Devonians slain World War II.
As in A Separate Peace, there is a half-understood, partly intentional killing, which is varnished over by deceit and confusion. Finny's death-bringing tree is alluded to. No one, however, unearths the truth, though all suspect something is rotten in Devon. Then graduation day arrives, and adolescent murderers -- good boys all -- jauntily amble off with diploma in hand. About Wexford, Pete muses: "He's an incipient monster . . . and I can't prove it and I can't stop him. For the last dozen years we've seen in the world how monsters can come to the top and just what horrors they can achieve. And those monsters were once adolescents."
Why does Peace Breaks Out fail? There is of course no pat answer. Knowles' descriptions of the New England countryside are at times inspired. His vision of moral ambiguity -- the uncertanity with which we live -- is valid. However, the return to Devon may have been unwise: successor novels seldom live up to expectations. Perhaps Knowles' biggest problem is with viewpoint. Through Gene, the narrator of A Separate Peace, Knowles imprinted upon the reader an unforgettable vision of adolescent life during World War II. Irony was always within reach as Gene labored to justify his actions by self-deceptive rationalizations. The narrative technique in Peace Breaks Out, shifting so frequently from character to character, lacks tension and subtlety. Too often Knowles loosely reports and informs when he should dramatize.