A slow-burn schoolboy tale of war and friendship
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 20 April 2016
Published back in 1959, this novel, so the cover tells me, is not only an American classic, but has sold seven million copies. It made quite an impression on the reviewers it quotes. I opened it with high expectations. I grew puzzled, though, as I read through the first two-thirds of it, increasingly wondering why was it rated so highly. It's an understated, unremarkable story of friendship in a boys' boarding school in New England during 1941-2. Not a lot happens. The boys' lives are humdrum, if rather free of teacher interference; there are no simmering feuds, no bullying, no secret romances, no eccentric teachers, no mysteries. The only real source of tension is caused by the long shadow of war: the boys were a year or two away from enlisting. School stories are usually about hierarchies and power structures; they are often sentimental, about crushes and intense friendships; they often explore emerging sexuality, straight and gay. This one centres around the friendship between two roommates, Gene and Phineas, told through Gene's reminiscences. There is some unacknowledged rivalry between them, felt only by Gene, but otherwise it's nothing special. Just once this rivalry breaks the surface, for a mere second or two, and the reverberations of that will prove deadly.
The story shifts into a different gear in the last third of the book and at last one begins to see the point of it all, why the book gained such popularity. The act of rivalry is like a ticking time-bomb that explodes in the book's final act, forcing the two friends to face up to the truth of their relationship. It's the kind of act that will haunt Gene for the rest of his life.
The book is very good on the effect of war on those destined to enlist in it, a whole, some might say, doomed generation. There are two other main characters in the story, both of whom exemplify this effect. A boy nicknamed Leper is a misfit at school; he leaves early to enlist, but finds life in the army so disorientating he has frightening hallucinations and is discharged on medical grounds. Brinker, another boy, who tends to represent authority among the boys, feels bitter about the war, blaming it on the stupidity of his father's generation who left such a mess, politically, after the carnage of the first world war. Phineas is debarred from participating because of a disability. Gene alone seems the least affected by it.
The star of the book is not Gene, the narrator, a high-achieving but rather isolated intellectual, it's Phineas. Not because, before his accident, he's a star athlete, but because of his nature. He survives by constructing his own view of the world, bending the rules, reality even, to suit how he thinks life should be. At the end of the book, Gene describes him thus: "During the time I was with him, Phineas created an atmosphere in which I continued now to live, a way of sizing up the world with erratic and entirely personal reservations, letting its rocklike facts sift through and be accepted only a little at a time, only as much as he could assimilate without a sense of chaos and loss. ... He possessed an extra vigor, a heightened confidence in himself, a serene capacity for affection which saved him... nothing even about the war had broken his harmonious and natural unity." Then Gene owns up to his guilt: "So at last I had." Gene broke him by a tiny, subconscious act: that lies at the heart of this subtle moral tale.
It didn't make a great impression on me, it's too quiet and restrained for that. But I admired its final act, and the style too - the book has some beautiful, well-crafted, fastidious prose. I suspect one should read this when one is young, just as one should read 'Catcher in the Rye' when young to feel its fullest impact.
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