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No Mr. Chips

The Headmaster Ritual A Novel Taylor Antrim Mariner Books: 310 pp., $13.95 paper

July 08, 2007|Louisa Thomas | Louisa Thomas is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

EDWARD WOLFE wears Mao-style jackets and a rope for a belt. Tall and trim, with a handshake "like a leather strap," he says things like "Discipline is a question for the collective," displays Kim Il Sung's writings prominently in his office and was forced out of a tenured position at Harvard "under a cloud" after an affair with an undergraduate. He believes that Joseph Stalin is a misunderstood figure.

Wolfe is now the headmaster of the Britton School, a coed institution that is "the oldest, most selective prep school in the country." Even given the long roll call of wicked headmasters, Wolfe's provocations seem a stretch. But we'll award author Taylor Antrim a pass, because he gets so much else right: sequences of pitch-perfect dialogue; sharp descriptions (an adrenaline rush is "that twig-in-stream feeling," a scar is a "slug of shiny skin"); and Wolfe's intelligent but socially awkward son, James.

James, a senior at Britton, managed to fly under the radar during his junior year by keeping his head down and his acquaintanceships limited to the odd exchange student. Now he isn't so lucky: He's been assigned the best room on campus, left empty when Headmaster Wolfe had a senator's kid kicked out on trumped-up charges during a purge of the moneyed elite. This makes James ripe for hazing. "I'm sort of throwing him to the wolves," his father admits.

But James is a bit of a wolf himself; that's why he's so compelling. He endures insult and injury, nurses an unrequited crush on a beautiful, manipulative girl and watches his parents' marriage fall apart. But he's also a lonely 17-year-old fending for himself in a Hobbesian environment, and he doesn't always make the right decisions, tactically or morally. It's hard to know whether to cringe for him or cheer him on.

The narrative alternates between James' story and Dyer Martin's. Dyer, a new teacher at Britton, is just as bewildered as James, although his insecurities are different. Dyer is basically cool: smart, good-looking, self-assured even in a room full of wary, gum-snapping teenagers. But he misses the girl he left behind in California, and he's uncertain how to befriend the few young faculty members. His father abandoned his mother when he was young, and his constant self-analysis of the lingering damage gets a little trying. But for the most part, his voice is sure and his perspective on his students' lives is illuminating, even when -- as in James' case -- it's all wrong.

Matters come to a head at a model U.N. conference, where (at the headmaster's behest) Britton represents North Korea. The elite school and the rogue nation are an odd match -- but a weirdly fitting one. Juche (roughly, self-reliance), the official ideology of North Korea, and the ethos of prep-school teenagers have something in common.

"They don't divide rationality and emotions," one Britton girl notes of North Korean mores. "They don't think.... They just do." She might be describing herself and her peers. *

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