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BOOK REVIEW / MEMOIR : Boy's Story Hints at the Passion of Youth : STAND BEFORE YOUR GOD by Paul Watkins ; Random House $21, 240 pages.

March 10, 1994|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

It is not always necessary to be old to write a childhood memoir, but Paul Watkins may be too young to write this one.

Watkins tells of the events during his years in English boarding schools; sometimes he tells of the emotions he felt at the time. What is almost entirely missing is the master emotion that drives the act of memory.

Childhood has no real biography or autobiography. The facts are too incipient and unwilled to stand by themselves. It can, on the other hand, be the occasion for a memoir: a dialogue between the remembering adult and the remembered child. It is a journey, not a tour, and the writer is a traveler, not a tourist. A need compels it--to discover in the past what is not yet known about the present. If the great childhood memoirs seem golden, it is this need that lights them up--like a cave-explorer's torch that picks the gleam of metal and quartz out of the darkness.

At 30, the author of novels set in three vastly different worlds--one in Morocco, one among New England fishermen, and the third among German soldiers in World War II--Watkins keeps childhood at a distance. He writes of himself without intimacy, as if he were his own invented character.

Take the beginning of "Stand Before Your God." At 7, living with his American family in England, Paul is dressed up in a new blue corduroy suit and taken by his father to a large house in Oxford. There is food and a collection of other boys, and Paul wanders about with a pack of cards showing off his tricks. His father shakes his hand and leaves; Paul goes up to the host and compliments him on the "neat party." The man squats. "I am Mr. Vicker and I am your house master," he tells the child. "From now on you must call me 'sir.' "

The image is rending--a child dropped without warning down a well--yet Watkins makes it suspect. "I swear I thought I was going to a party," he tells us.

No doubt he did partly think so; no doubt his mother and his father, a professor of geophysics, had told him about the school he was to be sent to; no doubt he had blocked out a good deal and was confused. Telling it this way, though, Watkins calls attention less to the child's emotion than to the aesthetics of his emotion.

Watkins attended the Dragon School in Oxford until he was 12; after that, he went to Eton where he remained until he graduated and entered Yale. For vacations, he returned to his family's home in Rhode Island. In neither world did he feel he belonged, he tells us in the book's main bit of introspection. "I began to feel like the governor of a mid-Atlantic island with a population of one," he writes gracefully. "Sometimes I wrote stories so as to increase the number of people on my mid-Atlantic island."

For the most part, "Stand Before Your God" tells of the tightly enclosed and ritual-bound world of the primary school, and the somewhat larger enclosures and rituals of Eton. His first night at Dragon featured the confiscation of his teddy bear by the main boy, who threw it out the window. Once recovered, it was respected; all the boys kept stuffed animals. As an American, Watkins was held in some derision until he bloodied his face stopping a soccer ball. Blood was respected and--nicknames holding the mysteries of hierarchy--he graduated from being Watty Dog to plain Watty.

There were beatings--though a particularly heavy-handed master was dismissed--dormitory raids, midnight feasts, ordeals of various kinds and, when graduation approached, a sense that the next step would be less safe. It was.

Eton was harsher and odder. History weighed heavily, and so did the class system. Paul's best friend was a comically pompous junior aristocrat whose clothes were ancient and shabby and admired for their lineage--Lobb's, Asser and Turnbull and so on--by upperclassmen. Paul and his fellows made breakfast for the senior prefects, laid out their clothes and, one evening, lugged in a garbage can full of snow so that the older boys could have a snowball fight in the common room.

There was a little sex and quite a few crushes, with older boys adopting pretty younger ones. Watkins rejected an advance or two, worked hard and tried to write. His grades and his writing lagged during his father's long siege with cancer; after his death, Watkins felt a kind of freeing.

The author's portrait of English boarding-school life is reasonably vivid in its detail, though a lot of the detail is very familiar. The subject has been much--and much better--treated. Even when he is recalling his vacations at home, his friends and his dying father, Watkins writes with stiffness and distance. Perhaps memory will someday become a passion; at the moment, it is an assignment.

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