Second-novelist Herman (The Weight of Love, 1995) chooses a genre—adolescent coming of age—that as book editor he must have seen in an excess beyond measure. To his credit, though, albeit amid many an echo of Wolfe, Fitzgerald, Knowles, and Salinger, he turns his version of the far too oft-told tale into a readable pleasure. Paul Werth goes to Highgate, a prep school just north of Manhattan, where many of his classmates live, though he himself is from ``the suburb'' where the school is located. Paul is a sophomore, in the spring of 1962, a time, Herman announces, ``when boys still wore their hair short and the United States was not at war in Vietnam and America had not yet heard of drugs or rebellion or failure. . . . `' Maybe so, but drugs are still one of the twin mainsprings making Herman's plot go round: Somebody is selling inside the school, and the headmaster is going to find out who. How could thoughtful, introspective Paul, a subtle thinker and omnivorous reader, conceivably be involved? Well, the second mainspring is that Paul's father died just 14 months before the book's opening—an event that plunged Paul not only into girl trouble, homework trouble, and a hitting slump in baseball, but into wondering whether life might be ``literally without meaning.'' He really could be drug-involved, in other words, not to mention that he's also friends with the devilishly cavalier Philip Richards, a character suspicious indeed. During the raveling of Paul's classically expectable fate, Herman is at his Fitzgeraldian best in describing parties, people's looks, the smells and feels of places—and the past. Very possibly best and truest in the book—and saddest—is Paul's passionate, long-ago, grade-school love affair with little Cassandra, who only too soon. . . . But let that stay unsaid. Herman has grown since his first book. Even working against the pitfalls of a wildly overused genre, he's able to bring in light, color, feeling, and life.
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