A novice teacher and an alienated senior endure a year under the hand of the school's manipulative headmaster with a sinister agenda of his own.
Taylor Antrim's debut is a clear-eyed examination of hidden worlds whose complexities and rules are only understood from inside: the insular ecosystem of boarding school; the thorny dynamics of fathers and sons; and the self-deluding excesses of blind ideological commitment.
Praise for THE HEADMASTER RITUAL:
The Headmaster Ritual has a pop veneer, nodding to Wes Anderson's "Rushmore" (the ultimate prep school movie) and cadging its title from one of the Smiths' bleaker songs (which is saying something). The novel's international touch...soon becomes unusually satisfying, as much for adding brio to the plotting as for its rich metaphorical possibilities.
-Ed Park, Salon.com
Edward Wolfe wears Mao-style jackets and a rope for a belt. Tall and trim, with a handshake 'like a leather strap,' he says things like 'Discipline is a question for the collective,' displays Kim Il Sung's writings prominently in his office and was forced out of a tenured position at Harvard 'under a cloud' after an affair with an undergraduate. He believes that Joseph Stalin is a misunderstood figure. Wolfe is now the headmaster of the Britton School, a coed institution that is 'the oldest, most selective prep school in the country.' Even given the long roll call of wicked headmasters, Wolfe's provocations seem a stretch. But we'll award author Taylor Antrim a pass, because he gets so much else right: sequences of pitch-perfect dialogue; sharp descriptions (an adrenaline rush is 'that twig-in-stream feeling,' a scar is a 'slug of shiny skin'); and Wolfe's intelligent but socially awkward son, James.
-Louisa Thomas, The Los Angeles Times
In his smart and absorbing debut novel, The Headmaster Ritual, Taylor Antrim tries something different: He sets an old-fashioned coming-of-age drama against the backdrop of a very contemporary (and eerily plausible) modern world, where the U.S. and North Korea are on the brink of nuclear war. The teens in this book would vastly prefer to be worrying about curfews, college admissions and hooking up, but current events keep getting in the way.
-Christopher Kelly, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Antrim has done a good job updating "A Separate Peace" for the hook-up generation. He might have even bested the Phillips Exeter Academy-based account of boarding school ennui by (a) having the school be coed and (b) making half the narrative come from a young teacher.
-Reyhan Harmanci, The San Francisco Chronicle
Anxiety and alienation abound in prep school stories. At the Britton School in Massachusetts, novice history instructor Dyer Martin faces bored kids whose wealth conveys entitlement. James Wolfe, who is most unlike his classmates, unwillingly moves into a dorm, where he is hazed on an unsanitary scale. Taylor Antrim realistically and touchingly traces the yearning to fit in and the anguish of ostracism. But he deviates from old-school storytelling when the headmaster, James' father, drags Dyer and his students into his fevered defense of North Korea's rogue status. Such satire isn't necessary to escort Dyer and James into manhood, but it's more engaging than a typical prep school class.
-Dennis Moore, USA Today
The Headmaster Ritual is superb. Antrim demonstrates an impressive talent for developing distinct, complex characters, and the control he exercises over multiple story arcs shows a mature talent you might not expect to see in a first novel. Think of it as Lucky Jim for the prep school set.
-Doug Childers, Richmond Times Dispatch
Antrim walks a couple of careful lines here: The political stuff gives the book a timely frisson without unduly tethering it to the headlines, and the geopolitics aren't there just for texture, but are integrated into the main action. That's because Edward Wolfe, Britton's headmaster (and James's aforementioned aloof father) is an aging lefty radical--and an open, fervent North Korea sympathizer. Wolfe is an enigmatic and imperious presence, with an agenda that pulls in both Dyer and James and drives the novel's main engine of suspense.
Powerless and friendless, James wonders if the erratic behavior of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, might serve as a model to earn some kind of respect. "All his life," Antrim writes, "James had been predictable -- polite, studious, adaptable -- and where had it gotten him? Isolated from his parents and manipulated by [other students]. There was freedom in invisibility, but if James couldn't be invisible, he could be volatile." This insightful blending of geopolitical conflict and teenage angst gives the novel real emotional depth."
-Ron Charles, The Washington Post
Don't let the cover fool you: The Headmaster Ritual by Taylor Antrim is not meant for a young adult audience. Yes, the story is set at an elite New England prep school. But instead of joining key club or debating the best coxswain for this year's crew team, these kids fight and hook up and debate with a fervor that would make most Brown students blush.
-Andy Schlesinger, Esquire.com
What do terrorism, real estate and North Korea have to do with prep-school life? Nothing obvious, but in The Headmaster Ritual, his hilarious and winningly composed debut novel, Taylor Antrim weaves these elements into a story that brings the campus coming-of-age novel into the 21st century. Antrim writes extraordinarily well about the real languid, unglamorous texture of the prep school world, of how it feels with so much privilege concentrated in a confined environment the belching kids and bellyaching teachers, the fact that even talented, intelligent students arrow toward laziness unless spurred on by self-interest. -John Freeman, Newark Star-Ledger
The Headmaster Ritual is a wonderful accomplishment, especially for a debut novelist. Taylor Antrim is a name to look for in the coming years.
-The Washington Times
Antrim telescopes his generation's view of the 21st century: Granular, complicated, variable. Disorder in the world resonates with Britton's students' own unruly coming-of-age.
-Michael D. Langan, Buffalo News
Antrim's natural writing style comes judiciously adorned with striking figurative gestures (a postdivorce household features 'bookshelves with their teeth knocked out'); his ruthless study of characters' inner lives will draw fans of Jonathan Franzen and other scions of the hapless contemporary male; and the prep-school setting, with its gladiatorial social interactions, holds perennial appeal."
...the first novel by journalist/critic Antrim...shows considerable promise. The novel 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 where everybody wants something from somebody else, help sustain the narrative momentum.
Political radicalism, boarding school cruelty and the specter of a showdown with a nuclear North Korea fuel Antrim's debut novel...Well-drawn characters and tight dialogue add appeal to Antrim's keenly observed satire.
The Headmaster Ritual is that rare debut in which every detail is exquisitely crafted, and in which the characters are vivid and poetically true. Antrim's intelligent and darkly comic portrait of a prep school and its (occasionally) dysfunctional inhabitants is both deeply unsettling and fantastically entertaining. A truly stunning novel.
Here it is: a first novel in which the characters are distinct, their inner lives believable, their initiations various and complex. Taylor Antrim has written a book that forces us to grapple with the challenges of integrating the public, the private, the personal, and the political.
The best novel set at a boarding school since A Separate Peace. For my money, even better. A stunning debut in every way.