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Darin StraussIn its best moments (before the narrative stumbles onto screwball terrain), The Headmaster Ritual is a good old-fashioned campus novel.
—The New York Times
Political radicalism, boarding school cruelty and the specter of a showdown with a nuclear North Korea fuel Antrim's debut novel with mostly winning results. Fleeing job and girlfriend disasters, Dyer Martin takes a job as a history teacher at the tony Britton School, an Andover-like boarding school run by Headmaster Wolfe, a 1960s radical–turned– preppy–fundraiser whose paranoia is displayed early and often. Wolfe's son, James, meanwhile, has been quietly attending Britton, but after his father forces him to move into the student dorm for his senior year, his fellow students haze the brainy and socially awkward young man. While James negotiates the stormy waters of adolescence (the centerpiece is his crush on a girl who may be romantically involved with a bully), an increasingly erratic Wolfe orders Dyer to take a team of students to the Model U.N. conference as representatives of North Korea. Dyer, however, is suspicious of Wolfe's motives, especially after he sees Wolfe covertly meet in the middle of the night with a mysterious Asian man. All is revealed at the conference, though the climax is marred by a chain of events that defies reason. Well-drawn characters and tight dialogue add appeal to Antrim's keenly observed satire. (July)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
In a first novel that mines the boarding-school genre, ForbesLife editor Antrim centers on James Wolfe, a bright senior with pitiable social skills, and Dyer Martin, a young first-year teacher with absolutely no experience who's not sure exactly why he was hired. Dyer and James share a connection through James's father, the school's headmaster and a political radical who may or may not support North Korean terrorists. The bulk of the narrative deals with the headmaster's manipulation of students and faculty to achieve his fanatical political goals. The book's real accomplishment, however, is the parallel personal development of Dyer and James and the effect each unwittingly has on the other. Most readers won't mistake Antrim for Tobias Wolff, but that doesn't mean the novel isn't a worthwhile selection, especially for younger readers. Recommended for high school and most general fiction collections.
Posted January 5, 2008
I have to admit the only reason I didn't pass this book over in the store was because the marketing for it insulted me, my taste in books and my memory. I rarely pick up a book to read on the basis of looking for a fight, but THE HEADMASTER RITUAL wasn't about to let me pass without one... so, here I am, I'm still standing and the book is now heading for the FREE TO A GOOD HOME table at work - so, you may be asking, just what did this book do to insult me? Well, I'll leave that to the blurb/review given to the book by CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY (THANK YOU FOR SMOKING), and I quote: 'THE BEST NOVEL SET IN A BOARDING SCHOOL SINCE A SEPARATE PEACE. FOR MY MONEY, EVEN BETTER. A STUNNING DEBUT IN EVERY WAY.' That one nearly knocked me off my feet when I read it in the store, for not only is A SEPARATE PEACE one of my all time favorite novels, but Buckley has the sheer brass to not only to compare the book to a 'classic' (it's loved, it's hated, its lasted), but say outright that TAYLOR ANTRIM (this, his first novel) has done it one better, so much so that Buckley is willing to back his review with his own money (money he surely did not fork over to actually read the book, no, a free copy was provided for him by the publisher), so, tell me, where I can go to claim a portion of that 'money' back offer? I can live with hype. I can live with hubris (just read the other two reviews under Buckley and ask yourself which of them has the brownest nose). I understand a publisher has to rattle the cages and ring the bells to get readers to notice their wares, but this was a low blow - so, I did the only nobel thing. I bought a copy and sat down to see if this, THE HEADMASTER RITUAL, was not only a good book, but one for the ages. Simply put, no. And the only connection between A SEPARATE PEACE and this novel is the setting (a boarding school) and a ernest, but half hearted take on the theme war (what's it good for?). If anything, it's trying too hard to meld A SEPARATE PEACE (or, more directly its ill advised follow up PEACE BREAKS OUT) with two other established (and often banned) classics, A CATCHER IN THE RYE and THE HEADMASTER RITUAL's true father... THE CHOCOLATE WAR by Robert Cormier. While not beat for beat, or line for line, the skeleton of THE CHOCOLATE WAR sticks out just below the skin of this novel. But, despite some nice writing (and few turn of phrases that does lead me to believe that Antrim may have a future), and an idea or two, the book too quickly resorts to cardboard plotting and stock scenery, moving the company to one set up to the next without really ever getting into either the hearts or minds of everyone involved. On occasion Antrim does reach (the entire model UN plot and North Korea is meant to be topical and drive home the point of just how much more profitable it is to sustain a 'truce' than drive home for 'peace'), and when the book is focused on the school itself, it shines (I kept wishing for more time on the dorm floor, campus and classrooms), while the rest tends to read weightless and disconnected. You will coast through this novel without breaking a sweat. Overall, wouldn't it be nice to do away with the hype? It's true that I apporached this novel with a chip on my shoulder, but it did not color my view of the actual work (its connections to more famous works are clear), I was willing to lay down the cash and give it a chance. But, the selling of books these days has become so cut throat and so misleading that the blurbs and the reviews are often far better crafted and entertaining than the actual books they're hawking. Enough.
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Posted September 20, 2007
Posted September 9, 2007
Taylor Antrim introduces himself wonderfully with this outstanding debut novel which combines boarding schools, father-son complexes and the current situation with North Korea. Writing in a parallel storyline, the book follows Dyer Martin, a recently hired history teacher, and James Wolfe, the headmaster's son, as the both try to be the people they know they have to be. I would say that the book is a combination of 'Catcher In The Rye'(My all-time favorite book) and the video game Bully. A great book in which I highly recommend.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.