Author: John Knowles
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: August 2015
When my friend Jim gave us a painting of a shelf of coming-of-age novels for a wedding gift, this was one of the books I’d never heard of. I found an old copy at Eat My Words, the cover of which bills it as “The best since Catcher In The Rye.”
So it is that this book too is about young men in a New England prep school, coming to terms with the transition into adulthood. What distinguishes this novel is its 1942 setting, when the senior class at Devon is getting shipped off to World War II. The protagonist, Gene, and his unique friend, Phineas, are about to enter their last full year at school before they are old enough to enlist. Or, at the end of the year, get drafted.
I plucked this one off the shelf because it was short, though I was not particularly looking forward to it. But late summer was a good time to give it a go, because of the back-to-school feeling, and it turns out the book was more enjoyable (and funny) than I had expected. There’s something about the prep school that has an allure of the romantic, because for me it exists only in books. The campus setting and isolation of the boys always make these stories seem like college tales, despite the high school age of the characters.
Throughout, the young men try to orient themselves against the flow of the outside world and find it difficult:
Bombs in Central Europe were completely unreal to us here, not because we couldn’t imagine it—a thousand newspaper photographs and newsreels had given us a pretty accurate idea of such a sight—but because our place here was too fair for us to accept something like that. … The people of the world who could be selfish in the summer of 1942 were a small band, and I’m glad we took advantage of it.
This freedom was one aspect of their reality, but the pendulum also swings in the other direction and makes them constantly anxious and useless, until they “seemed to be nothing but children playing among heroic men.” This psychology creates cracks between the schoolyard friends, causing Gene to inflict harm and Phineas to dip into a delusion of his own making.
Time crushes down upon these unfortunate youth. The story is one of reminiscence, tinged with a wonder and regret. The narrator realizes that “there is no stage you comprehend better than the one you have just left” and finally philosophizes about the big picture: “It seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart.”
The meditation on a specific wartime psyche is what gives this book value. It’s how a lot of us learn about the great events: piecemeal, through stories that each tackle a certain angle. This is another effective WWII tale that helps fill in a gap for us non-history majors.