Gentlemen and Players: A Novel
by Joanne Harris
School for Scandal
A review by Ron Charles
I'm new to Washington, but my stint as a teacher at a wealthy prep school was
good preparation for the capital's weird mix of idealism and cynicism, equality
and privilege, principle and corruption. The tightly closed atmosphere of those
hallowed halls, so richly scented with money and charged with all that adolescent
sexuality -- like an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue come to life in the library
-- creates a fertile culture for scandal. During a particularly bleak year in
St. Louis, where I taught, the three most august academies weathered at least
two ruinous affairs between teachers and students and one murder. Those tragedies
don't appear in any of the lovely brochures, but gossip clings to these expensive
schools as tenaciously as ivy.
Of course, you don't need to spend $20,000 a year to learn this. It's the bread
and butter of novels about prep schools, which most of us taste for the first
time in John Knowles's pompous tale of repressed homosexuality, A
Separate Peace. If ever a novel deserved to be knocked off the curriculum,
it's this one, and Joanne Harris may finally have shaken the branch hard enough
to do it. Her irresistible Gentlemen and Players conjures up the ivory
towers of an old private school with all the tradition, pride and moldy resentment
such places cultivate generation after generation.
Constantly surprising and wickedly fun, this revenge tale is told by two narrators
in alternating chapters that begin at the start of the school year at St. Oswald's
Grammar School for Boys in England. The first narrator, a hypnotically nasty
Iago, introduces himself by saying, "If there's one thing I've learned
in the past fifteen years, it's this: that murder is really no big deal."
A precocious, desperately lonely child, he grew up on the campus of St. Oswald's
(his alcoholic father was the groundskeeper), and for years he nursed a bitter
desire to cross the threshold and enter that "unattainable glory,"
like "Xanadu . . . Asgard and Babylon all in one," where "young
gods lounged and cavorted." Alienated from his rough public-school mates,
he gradually insinuated himself into St. Oswald's, at first just sneaking onto
campus for athletic games but then (dressed in a stolen uniform) taking more
daring forays into the buildings, the library, even the classrooms, sometimes
handing in essays and joining school photos. "All I wanted, you see, was
to belong ," he claims. But of course, that's impossible, and the inevitable
failure of his dream has now brought him back to the school disguised as a new
teacher, determined to destroy St. Oswald's through a curriculum of vandalism,
sabotage and murder.
The second narrator, Roy Straitley, introduces himself as the "Old Centurion
of the School." After 10 years as a student at St. Oswald's, he's spent
33 more teaching Latin, holed up in the Bell Tower like Quasimodo, beloved by
clever students, remembered by nostalgic alumni and grudgingly tolerated by
efficient, new administrators. Harris gets everything about prep-school culture
just right, from the "genteel decrepitude" to the classic figures
who serve on every faculty and the comic mingling of high ideals and petty power
plays. But she's particularly brilliant with Straitley, who knows he's "like
a rather dull first edition no one quite dares to throw away." Every good
academy has one: the ironic iconoclast who is nevertheless the very spirit of
the place, waging a lonely battle against computers, maintaining the school's
traditions and opposing the headmaster's acquiescence to market pressures.
Straitley doesn't know it, but he's been cast as the white knight in an infiltrator's
deadly game. It begins with a few harmless annoyances -- a lost grade book,
a missing coffee mug -- but then the problems start to multiply and grow more
ominous. At first, Straitley doesn't notice the pattern; he's too concerned
with the headmaster's subtle efforts to retire him. But then poisonous arguments
erupt between faculty and students; serious charges are leveled; vandals strike;
a boy vanishes. Straitley struggles to parry these thrusts, but he doesn't even
know who his opponent is -- and eventually, in a dazzling feat of narrative
trickery, neither do we.
Beyond the book's considerable entertainment value, Harris has written an unsettling
reminder of how much our orderly lives depend on a fragile level of trust. Little
grains of dishonesty and malice sprinkled in the gears of an organization are
almost impossible to detect but can bring down the whole structure. Ironically,
the saboteur's most deadly tool is computer security, so trusted by everyone
that, in the wrong hands, it shreds reputations without any opposition.
As the battle at St. Oswald's continues, shifting from annoyances to embarrassments
to scandals to first-degree crimes, we hear more and more about the intruder's
bitterly unhappy childhood and the roots of his fiendish hatred for this well-heeled
culture. From the start of her career, Harris has explored class issues with
a smart, witty touch (consider the conflicts in Chocolat
but she's never come closer than she does here to the arrogance of privilege
and the malignancy of envy.
Bouncing between one narrator's maniacal strategy and the Old Centurion's desperate
defense, I was hooked from the first page; by the midpoint, I was racing along
as though it were a timed exam, as desperate to catch the clues as I was to
find out if St. Oswald's -- or at least Roy Straitley -- would survive. Even
the talented Mr. Ripley would find himself outclassed by the twists and turns
Harris serves up here. At the end, you'll gasp so loudly the librarian will
throw you out.
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