THE COMING STORM

By Paul Russell

St. Martin's. 371 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle

Here is a novel so conscious of its genre -- the male prep-school story, with its zigzags between the ingrown academy and the boundless outer world, its seen-it-all teachers and tried-it-all students, its strong homoerotic potential -- that John Knowles's A Separate Peace doesn't merely get a mention; it's the discussion topic of an English class observed by the headmaster (and, of course, the reader). Other literary forebears come to mind -- J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, James Kirkwood's Good Times, Bad Times, Michael Campbell's little-known but superlative Lord Dismiss Us -- and Paul Russell's book can hold its own in that select company.

One thing that differentiates The Coming Storm from all the above, though, is its arrival three decades after Stonewall. The homosexual teacher at Pencey Prep was one of the phonies in Catcher, the headmaster of Gilford was the pederastic villain of Good Times, and Lord Dismiss Us ends dismally for most of the gay characters at Weatherhill, but none of this stock footage figures in Russell's version.

So as not to give away too much of the plot, I'll just say that The Coming Storm ends up sparing most of the people it hits: the students and faculty of the Forge School, in the Hudson Valley. Gone are the days when repressed teachers flung themselves in front of trains and malicious students seduced their elders in order to blackmail them. Paul Russell conjures up a world in which an affair between Noah Lathrop III, a 15-year-old boy who is prone to both physical and emotional accidents, and Tracy Parker, a 25-year-old teacher who is comfortable with his own gayness, is troublesome not because it corrupts anybody (it doesn't) but because it is apt to be stereotyped, not least by the legal system that makes it a crime. Without preaching, Russell persuades the reader (or at least, I would think, most readers who are open-minded enough to pick up a book like this in the first place) that, in and of itself, the sexual relationship between Noah and Tracy is not only harmful to neither but a boon to the precocious junior partner, who becomes a better, more engaged student after the affair gets underway.

Despite the intensity of this relationship, Russell has energy and empathy to spare for the supporting characters. There is Chris Tyler, a Forge student whose homophobic neighbors in the dorm mockingly nickname him "the Fatwa": fey, unflappable, eager to enlist Noah in the cause of gay liberation. There is Reid Fallone, a womanizing teacher whose latest conquest prompts him to convert from the Episcopal to the Greek Orthodox faith.

Above all there are the headmaster, Louis Tremper, and his wife, Claire. A repressed homosexual himself, Louis likes to indoctrinate handsome young faculty members (the latest of whom is Tracy) into his personal classical-music cult, which runs heavily to the German Romantics, from Schubert to Richard Strauss. Also a devotee of Thomas Mann, Louis has been working incrementally -- and eternally -- on a doctoral dissertation whose title reflects Mann's uptightness as well as his own: "Closed Fist, Open Palm: Moral Discipline in the Works of Thomas Mann." (The reference is to a remark made about the protagonist of Mann's Death in Venice: " `You see, Aschenbach has always lived like this' -- here the speaker closed the fingers of his left hand to a fist -- `never like this' -- and he let his open hand hang relaxed from the back of his chair.") Claire, a jargon-spouting feminist who teaches part-time at a local community college, is well-aware of Louis's nature, loves him just the same, but works to cultivate an independent friendship with Tracy.

It's surprising and satisfying to watch the stiff Louis and the cliche-mongering Claire change and, as they do, all but shove Noah and Tracy's fiery passion into the background. Louis's guardedness can be infuriating, as seen in this passage, which comes as they arrive home after he -- usually so fussy about music -- has mystified Claire by praising the performance of a local, homegrown symphony orchestra despite its amateurishness: "In the front hall they removed their coats and hung them in the closet. She was like a city in the midst of civil war. Anger and grief vied for control of her heart. She would not try to talk with him, because she knew all too well that he would have nothing to say. Whatever he might have said, he would fold over and over, till it was so small and so concentrated that he could ignore its presence inside him. She had thought, once, that a day might come when those presences might open -- either gracefully, the way paper flowers blossom when dropped in water, or with explosive, cathartic force. Now she no longer believed anything would happen at all." Yet she sticks with Louis, and when the time comes for him to exert real leadership, when he smokes out Noah and Tracy and is forced to come to terms with a similar incident between a student and Louis's beloved predecessor, legendary Forge headmaster Jack Emmerich, Claire helps him summon the wisdom and nimbleness he needs.

The Coming Storm has its share of humor -- I particularly liked a response Noah imagines himself making should Tracy call on him in class while their affair is going great guns: "Speaking as somebody you [expletive] the other day . . . " And it has plenty of turmoil and suspense. Russell, whose three earlier novels include the witty Salt Point, shuttles back and forth among his central characters -- Tracy, Noah, Louis and Claire -- with elegance, and his prose ranges from the pungency of high porn to the density of Teutonic angst. The Coming Storm takes off from a sensational subject -- forbidden sexuality -- to arrive at unexpected heights and subtleties. It's both unsettling and touching. Toward the end Russell indulges himself in one or two unnecessary scenes of wish-fulfillment (for example, a homophobic dorm-neighbor of Noah's gets a too-convenient comeuppance), but otherwise his new novel is well-nigh flawless.

Dennis Drabelle is a Washington writer and editor.