A circle of bright college friends who feed on one another’s cleverness and trump one another’s insults until the steady diet of cynicism ends in tragedy — this is the stuff of two fine first novels: Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” (1992) and, now, Christopher J. Yates’s “Black Chalk.” Yates’s characters are even wittier than Tartt’s, but then, as undergraduates at Oxford University, they would be, wouldn’t they?
Yates is an Oxford man, now living in New York City, and a good enough gamesman to have once been a puzzle editor. For the game at the center of “Black Chalk,” he has stuck with the basics. Rather than inventing complicated rebuses or byzantine treasure hunts, Yates confronts his six players with perhaps the oldest and simplest contest of all: the penalty-dare. Not, mind you, your typical collegiate dares (drink yourself into a stupor, dash across the quad naked, etc.), but ones that tap into the roots of each contestant’s psyche. An example: One of the players, Chad, left his home in Upstate New York so alienated from his bullheaded, anti-intellectual father that the boy vowed never to set foot in the house again. Another player, whom Chad told about this rift in confidence, exploits his knowledge by ordering Chad to break that vow.
Why not just say no? Because of pride and a prize. Each player has anted up 1,000 pounds, subject to forfeiture if he or she fails a challenge. Augmented by funds from a secret campus society, the award to the last player standing will be £ 10,000 pounds.
The leader of the group is Jolyon, a charismatic fellow who not only overcomes his eccentric name but makes it into an asset. In fact, as Yates explains, being saddled with an obvious disadvantage or two can be a plus at Oxford. In that hothouse of talent, awash in rich kids and titled aristocrats, students from lesser backgrounds enjoy a perverse cachet. Each player in the game came to Oxford wanting to be “the brightest of the blooms that had sprung from the harshest soils, like a long-distance runner from Kenya who had trained in the dust with no shoes. A natural. Each of them yearned for the great status that disadvantage could bestow, because in truth they all felt scared, fearful they had slipped through the net and they really didn’t belong there at all.”
The story is told partly at a remove. Fourteen years after a game-related catastrophe, Jolyon is living in New York, a recluse suffering bouts of madness. At times, readers might find themselves losing patience with the adult Jolyon and his tribulations, and wishing the author would just get on with his chronicle. But eventually it becomes evident that the game isn’t over; the prize purse is still waiting to be claimed. Another player lives nearby, and a third is on his way from England to set the endgame in motion.
Yates is a master of college-student psychology. Watch what happens, for example, when Jolyon reaches into his strongbox of repartee, only to bypass the big words and dazzling comparisons and pull out the ordinary slur “stupid,” which he applies to a co-player named Mark. “Since the earliest days of their making friends they had all . . . freely and liberally insulted one another,” Yates writes. “Anything was permissible, desirable even. . . . And obscenities were not terms with which they could hurt or offend one another, such words meant almost nothing beyond ‘I strongly disagree.’ But never, not once, had any of them . . . called another stupid.” With that, it’s as if a dam has burst. The outraged Mark unleashes an abusive tirade that takes up two long paragraphs. It’s a brilliant scene that hints at dangerous, game-changing developments to come.
Like a locked-room mystery, a boarding-school or college novel reduces the world to a compartment filled with quasi-incestuous conflict. By adding gamesmanship and mental illness to the mix, Yates has achieved something new and impressive. You should pick up “Black Chalk.”
Dennis Drabelle is the mysteries editor of Book World.
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By Christopher J. Yates
Picador. 352 pp. Paperback, $16