This is the second American classic I’ve read in a month; the third if we’re counting discrete works rather than volumes. There must be something in the publishing air. This one’s very different from Nella Larsens’s Quicksand and Passing which explore race and identity in the 1920s in a very personal way. Written in 1959, John Knowles’ novel is set in a New England boarding school during the Second World War.
Gene, our narrator, has come back to Devon School fifteen years after he left. It’s not a reunion, nor is it the kind of visit when you’re held up as an example to the current inmates – he has an urgent need to revisit the site of events which have left an indelible mark on him. His story of the summer of 1943 and the events that ensue from it is set against the background of America at war. Gene and Phineas are unlikely roommates: Gene is the A-student both flattered and awed by the friendship of the athletic, impulsive and charismatic Phineas. Phineas involves the slightly nerdy Gene in all his shenanigans – inventing ridiculous games, engaging the summer school teachers in surprising conversations, seemingly unaware of the impression his impulsive behaviour has on anyone else. The dark turn events take during – and after – the ‘gypsy summer’ when the usual rules are barely enforced or flagrantly flouted, is the crux of this novel but their full shocking extent is not revealed until the final few pages.
Knowles paints a picture of an idyllic New England summer in which only a few shortages and the knowledge that ‘seniors’, just a year older than Gene and Phineas, have gone to war impinge. He tells his story in simple direct language, powerfully summoning up the claustrophobia of a small institution which thinks itself important: personalities which might otherwise be diminished in the outside world loom dangerously large. Gene’s insecurity and his failure to understand Phineas are deftly drawn – the schoolboy’s impression of the excitement of war and its reality powerfully conveyed. The final chapters of the novel are extraordinarily tense as Gene begins to understand the consequences of his misunderstanding. It’s a slim book but it packs quite a punch.