A novelist returns to his former prep school to teach, stirring up old memories of a schoolmate who vanished and various present-day student and teacher troubles in this debut novel.
When Fritz Davenport goes missing in March of his senior year at the Blackburne School, his best friend and roommate, Matthias, assumes a fight they had was a contributing factor. Ten years later Matthias is back at the all-boys' school to teach English, having recently lost his girlfriend and confidence in his writing as he works on his second novel, for which he received a big advance. With Matthias narrating, Swann toggles between his character's student and teacher periods, showing how intense friendships and cruelty can mark adolescence indelibly and exploring how people deal with the memories and wounds as adults. Matthias exemplifies dealing badly. He’s a bundle of unsettled issues, including his failings as a novelist, a busted love for Fritz’s twin sister, his neglect of his parents—he probably doesn’t even floss regularly. But it’s Fritz’s unresolved fate that eats at him most, a scab freshly torn with the death of one of his students in an unsolved shooting incident. He connects with a helpful deputy sheriff who originally worked on the Fritz case and stumbles on a campus figure who may be tied to both the recent student death and the decade-old disappearance. Trying to be both a school-days tale and a mystery, the novel doesn’t do either full justice, giving only glancing views of student life and, for a while, just spotty details and speculation on what might have happened to Fritz. But Swann steps on the gas for the last 100 pages, at which point the mystery takes off and it’s a pretty good ride.
A patchy but promising work that suggests a writer likely to prove much stronger with his sophomore effort.