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Complexity hampers 'Headmaster'

It is a bit of a mystery why Americans, most of whom have not attended prep schools, should continue to enjoy novels about them. I suppose it is because we would like to know what we missed by not attending.

Taylor Antrim, a graduate of Andover, Stanford, Oxford and the University of Virginia, draws on his prep school experiences to write "The Headmaster Ritual." In case you didn't know -- I didn't -- "The Headmaster Ritual" is a classic song of the Smiths (an English alternative rock band from 1982 -- 1987), thus inspiring the title of the novel. Part of the lyric by Morrissey runs, "Sir leads the troops, jealous of youth, same old suit since 1962, he does the military two-step down the nape of my neck." ( If you wish, you can watch a five-minute performance of the song on YouTube.)

The use of such material in the novel makes a point: It is written by a young man with his view of the world. The fact that the material has to be explained to the reader by the publisher tells me that many do not recognize the reference.

The novel takes time to get started. Dyer Martin follows Alice, his girlfriend, whom he has met in graduate school in England, to California. He has a brief, unsuccessful real estate career there and drives east and captures a job at the Britton School, whose motto translates "Youth from every quarter"; but try to find anybody whose parents don't drive a Jaguar.

The headmaster, Ed Wolfe, a former SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) member, sympathetic to North Korea and a former Harvard history professor, asks Martin to start a model U.N. Club. Antrim uses the National High School Model United Nations Club -- an entity that he covered as a reporter -- to "look at how a young man's coming of age intersects with his political education."

Sounds pretty dull. At times it is; at other times, it isn't.

With this as context, Antrim telescopes his generation's view of the 21st century: Granular, complicated, variable. Disorder in the world resonates with Britton's students' own unruly coming-of-age.

The novel is complicated, or made more intricate, depending upon one's view, in that Wolfe's son, James, is a protagonist. He's a bright young man with a proto-girlfriend, Jane, and complicated relationships with other students because of his father's position. Not only that, his mother, Caroline, has divorced his father and works for a military weapons manufacturer in Tennessee, hostile to North Korea, according to the headmaster.

Life is not good in this novel. There is plenty of action; in fact, too much. Dyer Martin, the teacher who has taken Britton students to New York City for the Model United Nations activity, drives home with the group after the whole proceeding is canceled because of a drug bust at the students' hotel. Dyer is sleeping with Greta, a teacher at Britton, who has earlier been sleeping with Headmaster Wolfe, who by this time has been fired by the trustees for unusual political tastes. (This seems the least of it.)

Not only that, but Dyer Martin's mother marries another woman, a long time friend and helpmate. Dyer and Greta attend the ceremony. If this brief summary appeals to you, buy the book.

Antrim is a good writer in search of a better theme. He can generate memorable lines: "The air wobbled with heat," the main character says, describing the aridity of part of Riverside County, California. Dyer Martin describes his drug-induced state at a faculty welcoming party at Britton: "Lamps left comet tails as he moved through the room."

Earlier, Martin mentions that he and Alice used painkilling drugs such as Vicodin, Dilaudid and Percocet, which gave him a "warm, wooly calm." The author talks of prep school activities such as "cruising" and being "funneled," which will raise questions for parents about why they should spend thousands for their kids to experience these stupidities.

Books about headmasters are not new. I think of my own favorites. Top of the list is "Tom Brown's School Days" by Thomas Hughes, about Rugby from 1834-1842, published in 1857. Of course, readers will remember with affection James Hilton's 1934 novel, "Good-bye, Mr. Chips," about a shy English headmaster who had a hard time engaging with students. Chips' (short for "Chippings") wife, Katherine, helps him round out his character, and he becomes a beloved head at Brookfield. The book was made into a movie twice, -- as well as a TV movie and miniseries.

And there was Louis Achincloss' 1964 novel, "The Rector of Justin." Auchincloss, America's supreme novelist of the upper class, wrote perhaps his best novel about a headmaster of a New England prep school. I remember reading it at the time and reflecting on how different it was from my years as a student in the early fifties at Father Baker High School.

And one must not forget the fine playwright, Buffalo's A.R. Gurney, who replicates on stage the WASP world view developed by Auchincloss in his novels.

Auchincloss, now in his nineties, is still in the game. He has written another book about prep school, "The Headmaster's Dilemma," to be released September 10. In his new novel, he tells us what happens when "a school's ideals and founding principles collide with the exigencies of change." There is one last reason to read Auchincloss: It is to experience his undiminished spare prose: So clear, not a word too much -- nor too little.

All the best to Taylor Antrim as he follows in this tradition, notwithstanding a dose of salts for most of his characters in "The Headmaster's Ritual."

Michael D. Langan is a former headmaster of the Nardin Academy.

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The Headmaster Ritual

By Taylor Antrim

Mariner, 309 pages, 13.95, paper

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