Mr. Chips meets Gordon Gekko in Harris’ (Peaches for Father Francis, 2012, etc.) novel of academe.
Roy Straitley is a relic of the English prep school past: he's taught Latin at St. Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys for decades and otherwise leads a celibate and austere life in his nearby flat, his only luxuries being licorice candies, Gauloise cigarettes, and strictly moderate alcohol intake. But lately St. Oswald’s is in turmoil. A new headmaster, Johnny Harrington, has arrived, flanked by consultants and spouting modern theories of branding, political correctness, and trigger warnings, to effect the academic equivalent of a corporate takeover. Smooth, impeccably turned-out Harrington manages to co-opt the school’s older faculty by deluding them into thinking they have a future in the new St. Oswald’s. Instituting the contradictory motto Progress Through Tradition, Harrington replaces the Honors Boards—large placards lining the school’s corridors “inscribed with the names of our old boys”—with glossy advertising posters, imposes coeducation, and promulgates an anti-bullying policy that protects bullies. But most disturbing to Straitley, the new regime’s only dissenter, is the fact that Harrington is a graduate of St. Oswald’s who, without actually being implicated himself, was at the center of an incident in 1981 which led to the prosecution of a gay English teacher, Straitley’s best friend, Harry Clarke, for pederasty and murder. Now Harrington seems bent on banishing Straitley to the bleak underworld of involuntary retirement unless the old Latin master, armed with Roman political savvy, can upset the smarmy new head’s overly polished apple cart. Interspersed with the present narrative, set in 2005, are diary excerpts from a nameless St. Oswald’s student, written mostly circa 1981, addressed to Mousey, a boy from the slums whom he once tried to kill. In addition to describing the torture and drowning of animals, the diarist confesses to jealously acting out in a horrific way when his crush on Harry Clarke goes unrequited. Harris expertly manipulates reader expectations as to the identities of St. Oswald’s true villains, past and present.
A gripping fictional exposé of a tempest no teapot can contain.