- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 15, 2007

Boarding schools are an interesting regional phenomenon. I grew up in Wisconsin and went to college in Illi-nois, and I can’t say

for sure that I ever met a person who’d been to one.

Since arriving in the D.C. area, with its heavy presence of Northeasterners, though, I’ve met several in less than a year. So I was eager to read Taylor Antrim’s “The Headmaster Ritual,” a look into the culture and tensions of a fictional Massachusetts institution.

The tale centers around two remarkably similar characters, Dyer and James. Dyer recently failed in California real estate — he’d worked for his girlfriend’s father, and a bad buy cost him both his job and his relationship. He got a new gig teaching at Britton School, where James is a student.

Both men have questionable social skills, with James a frequent target for bullies and Dyer having trouble fitting in with the new environment. Both fall for loose women with histories of seeking out alpha male-types. Both struggle to relate to their fathers and father figures. In fact, James‘ father and Dyer’s alpha male rival are the same person, the philandering Headmaster Wolfe (who lost a position at Harvard for, rumor has it, sleeping with his students).

Before too long the elder Wolfe’s politics come into play. He’s a Sixties-style radical and a North Korea sympathizer. As tensions between the United States and Kim Jong Il escalate, he seeks to impose his views on the students.

He instructs Dyer to form a Model UN team — some of Britton’s top students will travel to New York as mock delegates, and they’ll participate in committees to learn how the real UN operates. The team will represent North Korea. James is on it, as is Jane, his love interest, and Randy, a jock who plagiarizes James’ academic work and (James worries) “hooks up” with Jane.

As the story unfolds, it gradually becomes apparent that Headmaster Wolfe’s relationship with North Korea goes beyond an adolescent political fantasy: He wants to actively undermine American interests, he has connections for doing so and somehow, the Model UN conference will play a role. He tries to get media coverage for the mock delegation.

Meanwhile, Dyer makes the best of the situation. He teaches the North Korean perspective in the most honest way he can, focusing on how the country uses unpredictability to its advantage. As a physically small adolescent, James takes the message to heart in his confrontations.

“The Headmaster Ritual” — which takes its name from a Smiths song that portrays teachers as abusive “belligerent ghouls” and “spineless swines,” even though there’s no corporal punishment in the book — is highly readable and quite entertaining, and it gives readers a glimpse into the elite boarding school world.

For example, by almost completely avoiding race and class discussions, it shows Britton’s homogeneity. Mr. Antrim mentions the occasional “scholarship student,” and one character is Vietnamese, but by and large the kids are isolated from the outside world. None seems too concerned with anything beyond himself.

The Massachusetts location allows Mr. Antrim to give homosexuality a similar treatment: He puts it out there without really delving into it. Dyer is a little put off when a male coworker asks him to drop over after a party for a drink (Dyer can’t decide if the invitation is friendly or, you know, friendly), but after that everything miraculously becomes genial between them. And there’s remarkably little discomfort when a close female family member comes out later in the book.

Mr. Antrim certainly isn’t advancing the debate in either direction, but he does demonstrate how young, educated Northeasterners (one of whom moved from California) might deal with things quite differently than older people from elsewhere in the country would.

“The Headmaster Ritual” also shows how an all-encompassing school environment, with no home life to divide students’ time, can exacerbate bullying problems. Where the average high school outcast might get shoved into lockers or beat up after class, predators have 24-hour access to James. In one particularly foul stunt, they pour urine into his radiator, and his clothes reek until laundry day.

There are also, of course, the famous hijinks most non-boarding school kids don’t discover until college — naked runs, drinking (and planting the bottles in James’ room), sneaking out to visit friends of the opposite sex. Even the teachers pop Vicodin for fun.

In fact, if there’s one problem with “The Headmaster Ritual,” it’s that it spends too much time on this portrait, taking too long to get to the Model UN conference, where all the real action takes place. Mr. Antrim never bores his readers, but it’s arguable he could have gotten by with one less bullying scene, one less Dyer-trying-to-connect-with-his-students moment, one less nervous James-pining-for-Jane near-breakdown.

The audience starts to worry it’s in for one more work of “modern” fiction — a book that sketches a set of characters, then abruptly ends, leaving readers either frustrated or pretending they “got it.” It’s not, but even by the book’s conclusion, Mr. Antrim hasn’t really fleshed out Headmaster Wolfe’s goals, methods and ideology.

“The Headmaster Ritual” is a wonderful accomplishment, especially for a debut novelist. Taylor Antrim is a name to look for in the coming years.

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