I gave a guy that I’m working with a copy of Revolutionary Road, and he has been quickly buying into the full Yates program. We have been talking about Yates and his work and I wanted to jump in somehow. Yates expert KCJ happened to pop by after I mentioned RR in my Theron Ware post, and it seems to be a good time to review. A Good School, readable and easy, had been teed up on my shelf for quite a while, and I read it last weekend.
A Good School is hardly a necessary book, but it’s a welcome text for Yates readers, and my question is how it fits with other classic “school” texts. It’s primarily marked by the thinness and fragility of his later style, such as it is, when Yates’ ability to create finished stories amidst the wreckage of his alcoholism and ridiculous personal life was rather miraculous. AGS was written in 1978 after the shocking and harrowing triumph of Easter Parade (1976), and it has the feel of its author coasting along creatively with a sweet and easy momentum (if the word “sweet” can ever be used in relation to Yates), enjoying the discovery of a serviceable perspective and technique, the demons of doubt and ambition and perfectionism more or less behind him. Yates seems to have a number of purposes in writing this book, but one of the most important ones is to describe the formation of his earliest literary style and approach, attaching it to an exploration of the development of his dark and troubled identity.
In both Disturbing the Peace and Easter Parade Yates plays an inspired creative game with his own experience and its transformation into fiction. Here he seems to be even more directly autobiographical, but he is also reaching into a confusing and challenging epoch in the past, his adolescence, which is strange and distant enough to lend itself to a more straightforward representation.
One of the things that I’ve done in the years since my 08 Yates run was to read a good chunk of WWI Lit recently. There is a corresponding body of WWII Lit, and AGS fits neatly into that category. WWI Lit includes the postwar development of High Modernism along with a number of memoirs, and within those there is a subcategory of the pre-War idyll, a description of the innocent and less apprehensive years leading up to the shock and surprise and tumult of conflict. Some versions, including fiction from the decade before the war, contain the seeds of character and behavior that will emerge later–I’m thinking of Robert Musil’s Young Torless, which I haven’t read recently, but it would seem to make an interesting corresponding text to A Good School. Musil’s book, similar to the excellent recent German film White Ribbon, shows incipient Nazism at a pre-WWI boarding school. My question, I suppose, is whether Yates is trying to describe the source and original prototype of his generation’s post-war malaise and ambivalence, the classic detachment and fear and loathing that he was able to capture so well in Revolutionary Road.
The war increasingly hangs over AGS, and Yates’ generation, and I might not emphasize it if I hadn’t read other similar books and memoirs recently. Also significant is the way that Yates’ fictional Dorset Academy is a “funny school” that closes down and fails just as Bill Grove and his class graduates. The point seems to be that these peculiar circumstances will never be repeated, and this particular disengaged hothouse model was never sustainable, as it was all based on the whim of an eccentric wealthy woman–who, it turns out, always wanted to be a man, or at least have a man’s freedom. Yates works hard exploring the darker side of “a man’s freedom,” and the brutal and miserable elements of identity formation, which inevitably include the sexual and gender confusion that lies in the actual founding of the school. WWI Lit is saturated with similar sexual ambivalence and homosexual attraction, desire, and coupling. The pre-war experience of Robert Graves at Charterhouse, in Goodbye to All That, makes a good comparison to Bill Grove in this book. Yates is trying to merge two worlds: the source of the postwar malaise of the self-doubting, confused heterosexual of the Frank Wheeler, Gray Flannel Suit type, and the cauldron of pre-war sexual identity formation.
Yates wrote this book long after the success of A Separate Peace (1959–two years before RR), and it’s funny to remember the note that I gleaned at some point during my previous Yates work, that A Good School was mentioned in the Preppy Handbook. I have a friend who had known about Yates for 30 years, ignorant of RR, based on reading AGS from that reference. Yates wrote a novel that marginally qualified for the list of classic school and adolescent texts, but it is deeply subversive at the same time–in a genre that is subversive in its nature. My new colleague was pondering how Revolutionary Road and Catcher in the Rye (1951) stand together as classics from the same period, and Salinger’s wildly popular and seemingly indispensable, definitive postwar book makes a tidy bridge between A Good School and Revolutionary Road. Salinger, with his own war baggage more scarring than Yates’, created a disaffected hero forever suspended in adolescent crisis, with a power that can be traced back to Huck Finn. Connecting A Good School to Revolutionary Road along these lines provides considerable depth and insight. Throw in Lord of the Flies (1954), another school classic with echoes in AGS, and you have a list of readable and well-known, easy references. In typical Yates fashion, his brief and secondary, seemingly fragile book, casts the entire collection in a darker, more honest and harrowing light. If you want to freak out a classroom of teenage literature students, perhaps start with Young Torless and include Revolutionary Road and A Good School on the reading list. Sounds like fun, feels like familiar pain, reads like truth.