Only Yesterday

A Good School

by Richard Yates
Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 178 pp., $8.95

Lying Low

by Diane Johnson
Knopf, 278 pp., $8.95

It’s one thing to remember yesterday, but quite another, as the Beatles plaintively suggest, to believe in it. If you don’t believe in what’s past you are humanly shallow, culturally stupid, morally irresponsible; yet if you do believe in it too intensely, you may not be free to live in the present. This last may not be altogether a bad thing, considering what the present is usually like, but it can be painful, as these two novels about lost yesterdays show.

In A Good School, Richard Yates surveys familiar ground. School is a classic metaphor for growing up, for the biological and cultural passage from youth and innocence to whatever their opposite may be—experience, wisdom, sophistication, disillusionment, corruption. If this school is a sub-par New England boarding school, if the hero comes from a doubtful social background, and the historical time is World War II, then we may expect a certain neatness in the story of young men about to face an unimaginable war.

Yates’s Dorset Academy is not a good school. Endowed by an eccentric millionairess in the 1920s, it is, in spite of its handsome pseudo-Cotswold architecture, simply too new and obscure to prosper. The headmaster is mainly a recruiting officer who gives out too many partial scholarships; many of its boys are the rejects of better schools; interscholastic sport, that great generator of parental and alumni enthusiasm, is expressly forbidden by the terms of the founding bequest. The Depression has made it possible to collect a fairly competent faculty, though not a contented one, but the place is obviously doomed, and it’s no surprise to learn that the class of ‘44 will be the school’s last.

Such a situation is dangerously susceptible to sentimental nostalgia, but Yates writes about it with considerable detachment. Part of the story is told in first-person reminiscences by William Grove, an old Dorset boy who is now a middle-aged writer, but the main narrative is told in the impartial third person, with Grove no more prominent than several of his contemporaries. Grove has had a lot of trouble fitting in at Dorset. His family is wrong—his mother an unsuccessful sculptor, her divorced husband a minor and unprosperous sales executive for General Electric; his clothes are odd enough to make some of his classmates call him “Gypsy”; he has none of the gifts for sports, studies, or foolishness that lead to success at school. For such failings Grove suffers the humiliations we would expect, but he begins to find his way by writing for and eventually editing the school paper, and Yates wisely makes him less a sufferer than a witness of the woes of others.

And woe is common enough at Dorset. The students tend to sadism, sexual confusion, and snobbery. A few are obvious winners, like Britt, the bright, self-contained perfectionist who befriends Grove and helps him learn how to write, enrolls in the V-12 program after graduation and misses the war, and …

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