Full confession: I’m a sucker for boarding school novels — Pencey Prep, anyone? Who can resist that microcosm of a privileged world with its hotbed of hormones, forced community, power plays between students and teachers. In Ann Beattie’s 21st book, its title as ironic as one of the author’s droll sentences, New Hampshire’s Bailey Academy is just that kind of bell jar, a place for smart, creative but troubled students from families with issues — divorce, death, adultery, alcoholism, abandonment. Among the volatile mix of this character-driven saga are the anorexic (this time, a boy), the sexually confused, druggies, kids expelled from other schools, not to mention a one-eyed soccer player. Dogged by adolescent agonies, they also must cope with a 9/11 death, which turned “[a]ll of Bailey [into] one big, dysfunctional family” and blanketed their post-Bailey lives with a nagging sense of the world’s uncertainty.
Ben, a Holden Caulfield of his generation, is the main character. At first, it was tough to single him out among the scattershot introductions of multiple students, teachers, parents, and lunchroom staff who crowd the early pages. A dramatis personae, listing each player along with an identifying feature would have helped. But once I adapted to Beattie’s oblique approach, I grew to appreciate the metaphor (and gorgeous cover) that defines her cast of characters — “The Peaceable Kingdom,’’ a painting on loan to Bailey from the cousin of an alumnus. According to Pierre LaVerdere, the charismatic teacher in the totemic mold of Miss Jean Brodie, Mr. Chips, and Mr. Keating slash Robin Williams, the painting represents “a version of Eden . . . where animals antagonistic to one another stand contentedly side by side.’’
If only. Discontent rules even among the acolytes who make up LaVerdere’s honor society. Right away, it’s clear that the pretentiously intellectual Mr. LaVerdere will disappoint his disciples. “Not to say that my deeply valued students aren’t people, but of course there’s a built-in power imbalance that allows me to have the last word,” he pontificates. Predictably, Ben, in true Holden style, will not only find him a phony, but also, later, uncover more damning flaws. Such a catastrophic world is bound to bring disillusionment “Why were some people so awful and others so sad?” Ben laments.
After graduation, with Barbara Ehrenreich as commencement speaker, everybody scatters. “[W]hat bonds would make them keep their friendships, their infatuations, their animosities?” Ben asks. He’s a Prufrockian mess of indecision. He drifts, crashes on unfamiliar mattresses. Should he enroll at Cornell, which has accepted him? He misses his Bailey buddy/crush, LouLou, who “shared his frame of reference about so much” and who is having an affair with a married man. “Was there anywhere his presence was truly wanted? The odd thing was that when you were in school, your presence was demanded. When you left, it was up to you to find out where you fit in.”
Struggling to fit in, Ben delays college. Through the husband of a Bailey teacher, he’s hired to answer the phone at a DC apartment complex. Notwithstanding such low-level employment, his benefactor, a judge, explains, “I don’t worry about a Bailey boy . . . you might end up a judge.”
Not likely. When Ben finally graduates from Cornell, more events pile on but don’t lead to much except numbness and loneliness, underachievement and hollow sex. He takes meaningless jobs, moves around, accompanies a nutty girlfriend to Miami, comes to an accommodation with his stepmother and sister, all the while trying to discover whether his father committed suicide. Claustrophobic and oppressed by New York’s recent trauma, he uses money his father left him to buy a house in the Hudson Valley. Bailey classmates cycle in and out of his life. Soon enough, LouLou turns up with a shocking request, followed by LaVerdere, adding his own stunning revelations. Can you ever know anyone is a persistent refrain as, all too often, the objects of Ben’s devotion turn into an emperor who has no clothes. LaVerdere “wasn’t the devil, just a sad approximation,” he realizes. Drawn with classic Beattie understatement and ambiguity, Ben ends up in the same dare-he-eat a peach dilemma as where he started.
Despite the compression of time and plot into an episodic, this-happens-then-that-happens chronicle, and the challenge of tracking so many characters, Beattie’s particular and eccentric rhythm offers plenty of pleasure. Every sentence shines with wit, originality, and sharp observations. Here’s a sample from the constellation of starred ones I penciled along the margins: a dented car looking like “a well-squeezed tube of toothpaste,” “being sick of LaVerdere was like being sick of the hands of a clock,” a pizza “whose topping smelled more like ammonia than mozzarella,” a desk full of “mothballs . . . found piled like Pez inside the hollow wooden legs.” Will every reader love this novel? Maybe not, but — hey — it’s Ann Beattie so cause enough for celebration.
By Ann Beattie
Viking, 274 pp., $25
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Mameve Medwed has published five novels, many essays and reviews, and lives in Cambridge. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.