This is one of the last of my boogeyman books from high school — those books you were supposed to read and didn’t. I didn’t read this one because I didn’t like my English teacher and thought the opening of this book was boring. And it kind of is. Like a lot of books about “school” there’s so much reflecting back on experience, that what makes them interesting is the remove you have from school to look back. YA novels work so well because we are locked into a familiar perspective and the story is told from within that space. This book, and others like Tobias Wolff’s Old School, and others were the perspective is from the future looking back are so often falsely given to students to read, when the kinds of reflection just don’t work as well as they should.
Anyway, we meet the narrator, now in his 30s coming back to his high school boarding school, Devon School, modeled after Phillips Exeter, a more than 200 year old private school (then for boys, but now boys and girls). When he comes across a familiar tree we are thrown into his memory (but from afar) as he recalls the fateful summer session where he became close friends with Phineas, a naturally out-going and athletic boy, and they get into all kinds of time-wasting trouble together. One day, high up in the tree, the narrator does or doesn’t wobble the branch they’re standing on, and Phineas falls out and shatters his legs, ending his sports career, certainly keeping him out of the war, and so on.
A lot has been written about the homosocial space of the boys school in this book, and there’s a clear kind of affection that the boys skirt around. Boys, not being the most loquacious about their emotions already, are in grave danger from ridicule and vulnerability in Devon School, and the fascination and repulsion of emotions and the sheer terror and delight of possible sexual feelings for another boy might account or partially account for the wobbling tree branch. It’s all understated and ambiguous throughout, or given that the narrator can’t truly reckon with his own guilt in this novel, he might be entirely locked out from further introspection. We aren’t, however, told about any kind of love life in his older years, even in the most oblique of ways.