The Headmaster Ritual
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The Headmaster Ritual

3.6 3
by Taylor Antrim

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Taylor Antrim’s debut novel is a darkly comic, clear-eyed look at hidden worlds whose complexities and rules can be understood only from inside: the insular hothouse of boarding school, the thorny dynamics between father and son, and the self-delusion of blind ideological commitment.

Dyer Martin, a new history teacher at the prestigious Britton School,


Taylor Antrim’s debut novel is a darkly comic, clear-eyed look at hidden worlds whose complexities and rules can be understood only from inside: the insular hothouse of boarding school, the thorny dynamics between father and son, and the self-delusion of blind ideological commitment.

Dyer Martin, a new history teacher at the prestigious Britton School, arrives in the fall ready to close the door on the failures and disappointments of his past: a disastrous first job, a broken relationship, and acute uncertainty about his future. James, a lonely senior, just wants to make it through his last year unscathed, avoiding both the brutal hazing of dorm life and the stern and unforgiving eye of his father, the school’s politically radical headmaster, Edward Wolfe.

Soon, however, both Dyer and James are inescapably drawn into Wolfe’s hidden agenda for Britton, as the headmaster orders Dyer to set up and run a Model UN Club for students. As the United States moves steadily toward a conflict with an increasingly hostile North Korea—whose pursuit of nuclear technology is pushing the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon—Wolfe’s political fervor begins to consume him, and he sets in motion a plan that will jeopardize his job, his school, and even the life of his own son.

With precisely controlled, deceptively subtle storytelling, The Headmaster Ritual is an insightful and captivating examination of the halting, complicated course young men must chart to shake off the influence of fathers—and father figures—while refining their convictions about the world and their place in it.

Editorial Reviews

Darin Strauss
In its best moments (before the narrative stumbles onto screwball terrain), The Headmaster Ritual is a good old-fashioned campus novel.
—The New York Times
Ron Charles
The only good thing about the first year of teaching is that it can happen to you only once…This is Taylor Antrim's first novel, and, like a promising new teacher, he tries some clever things, borrows from his colleagues and makes a couple of notable missteps.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

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
All is not well at the exclusive Britton School, though precisely what is fueling the tension-- beyond the usual teenage hormone riots and adult loneliness endemic to boarding-school communities--seems to hover just out of sight. We experience the leafy, not to say shady, institution and its aggressively off-kilter headmaster through the eyes of Dyer, a new teacher, and James, a student (and the headmaster's son), as events begin to build and magnify beyond the hothouse life of the school itself. ForbesLife associate editor Taylor Antrim makes his authorial debut with this unsettling novel, whose real subject may be the notion that our adolescence begins when we learn that adults keep secrets about themselves from us, and ends when we understand that they keep secrets about themselves from themselves, too. A graduate of Andover, Antrim knows the prep school geography intimately. He didn't even have to invent such pungent dorm-life details as "lacquering" (it involves filling a victim's humidifier with urine) or "hanging brain" (you don't want to know). He gives this claustrophobic world room to breathe, and to spark a chain of events that-- believe me--you won't see coming.—Richard Nalley
Library Journal

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.
—Kevin Greczek

Kirkus Reviews
Though the sinister dynamics of boarding school have long proven fertile ground for fiction, the political premise of this debut strains credulity. It's a shame that the setup requires such a suspension of disbelief, for the first novel by journalist/critic Antrim otherwise shows considerable promise. As the headmaster of Britton, the most prestigious prep school in the country, Edward Wolfe has left a tenured position at Harvard under shadowy circumstances that some said were political, some said were sexual and could well have been both. A 1960s SDS-er and a sympathizer (or more) with the violent tactics of the Weather Underground, Wolfe now finds himself at odds with his estranged wife, a former hippie who has returned to her family industry that works in league with the Defense Department. The headmaster wears Mao jackets on campus and makes no secret of his allegiance toward the nuclear-armed North Korea. If the reader can accept the possibility that a vigilant board would allow such a headmaster (who is also in charge of fundraising) to keep this job, the rest gets better. The novel mainly focuses on the parallel stories of two characters: the headmaster's son, James, a sensitive soul who has been shattered by the breakup of his parents' marriage and who receives more than his share of hazing, and a new history teacher, Dyer Martin, with no prior experience, plainly there to do the headmaster's increasingly nefarious bidding. With the headmaster using the children of the ruling class in his attempts to bring the war home, he involves Martin and a select group of students (including James) in a mock UN prep-school forum where Britton represents (you'll never guess) North Korea. Thenovel proceeds to a climax in which real-world terrorism intrudes on the students' hypothetical diplomacy, with the headmaster suspected of even greater villainy than previously known. Various romantic intrigues and unlikely allegiances, in a school were everybody wants something from somebody else, help sustain the narrative momentum. For those who can swallow the premise, the rest goes down more easily. Agent: Joe Veltre/Artists Literary Group

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
(w) x (h) x 0.75(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Prologue July

Dyer martin curled his fingers through the chainlink and stared at the empty field of shrub. Riverside County sunlight found shards of glass among scattered rocks and twinkled in his direction. Tufts of foot-high desert grass waved gentle hellos in the Santa Ana’s hot breath. Jim Simon, Dyer’s boss at Virgenes Development Corporation, had ordered him to take a look at the twenty-five acres he’d claimed for the company, to look at the stalled housing developments that surrounded it, to crouch down and sniff the chromium VI– and perchlorate-saturated soil. So Dyer had taken the 91 east, driving through a desert landscape of malls with empty parking lots, vacant glass-and-steel office parks, and windmill farms stretching to the Santa Ana mountains. Off the freeway exit just west of Perris, Dyer passed Palm Crest, a checkerboard of exposed foundations and roofless homes. “That’s a slice of wasteland you bought us,” Jim Simon had said with something like satisfaction, guiding Dyer out the glass office doors and into the parking lot, squeezing his shoulder in a kind, fatherly way. They both stood beside Dyer’s car, and Dyer enjoyed the weight and warmth of Simon’s hand. “But don’t worry,” Simon had said, smiling and letting him go. “This is why we have lawyers.” From the time Dyer came on as a junior associate, Jim Simon had told him to be aggressive and creative in exploring opportunities — and to liaise only with him, not any other partner at Virgenes. So on a week when Simon was golfing in Maui, a broker named Jimmy Veltramo rung his extension, and Dyer took the call. Veltramo had described the Inland Empire plot’s proximity to Palm Crest, a community of luxury homes, median price 500K, average owner age 29.9, average income high 80s. There was a dearth of shopping in the area, Veltramo said; perfect opportunity for a commercial developer like Virgenes. Timing was a problem; Dyer didn’t want to call Simon on his vacation, and Veltramo needed a letter of intent signed by Friday, or he’d take the offer to another company. LOIs were standard practice — and nonbinding; Simon signed them all the time. A signature would pull the property off the market for thirty days. Veltramo could courier the LOI right then; Dyer could always let the period expire without a deal. But Dyer hadn’t caught the clause nestled in a block of type on the back side of page three. The $500,000 Veltramo required for failure to negotiate a purchase and sale agreement. Nor had he checked a Phase 1 environmental report on the land. Nor had he checked the zoning. Now there was half a million due on a zonedresidential plot with groundwater contamination in the middle of nowhere. A bad blunder, a job-ending blunder. Dyer stood at the chainlink fence that surrounded the property, his ulcer throbbing deep within him, his mouth dry and sour, and he felt the guilt and embarrassment he’d been carrying around all week. He counted the things he could call his own — a dirt-colored Honda, a suitcase’s worth of clothes, the rising knowledge that he had never really wanted to work in real estate for his girlfriend’s father anyway. Escape would be natural, a matter of Dyer’s patrimony, of DNA, of blood-borne instinct. And there was his Honda, parked behind him, the driver’s door ajar, the key-in-ignition tone pinging. But Dyer was determined to stay in California and make it up to Jim Simon. He told himself that he loved Alice and didn’t want to lose her. Dyer put a foot in the chainlink and began to climb. The spiked top raked his thigh, tearing his suit pants as he swung a leg over. His knees buckled on the hard-packed sand. Stepping over bent lengths of rebar and miniature, thorny cacti, Dyer began to walk the boundary. The air wobbled with heat. Jim Simon had said wasteland, and yet with a little optimism, Dyer thought, with an eye for potential, you could imagine the sturdy geometry of a multilevel parking garage out here, or a retirement community of fountains and palm groves. He blinked hard, then blinked again, playing peekaboo with the view. The visions kept coming: a twenty-five-screen cineplex, blink, a petting zoo. He knew his ideas were impractical — there wasn’t another person for miles. And yet to Dyer they felt like guy wires streaming off his body, digging into the earth, steadying him. A black snake, like a discarded bicycle tube, lay down the fence line. He felt behind him for the fence, for its reassuring grid of hot steel. Dyer took a long breath, more visions flaring within him. He thought of < Alice at her desk, lit by her laptop screen — her thick auburn hair, her gently curving upper lip, her little belly, those things that made his heart race. Sunlight blinded him, bulleting off a broken bottttttle of Miller Lite. He ffffelt his hot ulcer prodding him in thhe stomach. HHe felt the half-million dollars clinging to his back. He felt the wires fray and snap. 1 September

We were supposed to meet this morning?” asked Dyer, standing in the shaded portico of Headmaster Wolfe’s residence, the humid Massachusetts air on him like a quilt. “Agreed,” said Edward Wolfe with his hand on the door’s brass knob. He moved out of the way. “Come in.” Dyer dipped his head and passed inside. The air had a still, musty smell, as if the windows hadn’t been opened all summer. The hardwood floor in the wide foyer was bare except for a coarse straw mat and an Oriental rug rolled up like a sausage along the wall. Muddy running shoes sat on a radiator; a loose stack of mail covered a table by the door. An ornately framed portrait — old, Dyer thought, the paint webbed with cracks — of a black-suited couple in twin wooden chairs was propped against the wall. In its place hung a framed sheet of yellow paper with a typed list of names. Curious, Dyer took a closer look. Halfway down the page, he stopped: “Edward Wolfe; Boston, MA; Harvard; SDS.” Dyer felt Wolfe at his side and realized the headmaster had him by a good half inch. His jaw was block-shaped beneath coarse gray stubble, his lips, fish-white and thin. Body heat came off him in waves, mingled with a clean, soapy smell. Dyer told himself to look at Wolfe directly, to find his eyes in their deep-set sockets. Even though Roberta O’Brien, dean of faculty, had offered him the job, even though he’d signed tax forms, even though there’d been a welcome letter for him in his Bailey House faculty apartment, this morning could still be some sort of final interview, a chance for Wolfe to make up his own mind. In late July during his interview with O’Brien, she’d said that Britton’s headmaster had left a tenured post in Harvard’s History Department to run the school. “He was looking for a more institutional role. To bring a progressive approach to the classroom,” she’d said. “So he wants young, less traditionally trained teachers, candidates with higher academic degrees, not graduates of education programs.” Dyer, with no prior teaching experience, with his Oxford M.Phil. in History, was “just the sort of candidate he’s looking for,” she’d said. A reassuring memory — but Headmaster Wolfe had never met Dyer. And there had to have been more qualified candidates vying for the position. Lots of them. A teaching post at Britton was something of a coup, and they could probably get a

Meet the Author

TAYLOR ANTRIM is an editor at ForbesLife and a regular contributor to the New York Times and Vogue. His work has appeared in Esquire, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Village Voice, and other magazines and journals. A graduate of Stanford and of Oxford, Antrim earned his MFA from Virginia, where he held the Poe-Faulkner Fellowship.

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The Headmaster Ritual 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a great read. If you like thrillers, then you'll love this book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.