PEACE BREAKS OUT by John Knowles


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Again the setting is Devon prep school in New Hampshire (read Exeter). Again the plot involves two classmates with an ambiguous relationship. Again global issues--pacifism, tolerance, demagoguery--are reflected in the games of boys. But unlike A Separate Peace, Knowles' effective first novel, this new story--set just after World War II rather than at its outbreak--never settles down, never really commits itself to any of the characters, and never earns the mini-melodrama it builds up to. In the '45-'46 year at Devon, Pete Hallam--a young teacher who has returned to calm New England after war/POW horrors and a broken marriage--will overcome his numbness and decide to live again. And many of the seniors will ponder the frustration of having just missed the war, the purposeless feeling that comes with peace (""No Germany to defeat, no Japan. . . what do we do?""). But Knowles gives most of his attention here to an obviously special student named Wexford (""lounge lizard, bookworm, pianist, smoker, palaverer, debater,"" drinker, non-athlete, school-paper editor), who worries most loudly about America's future, about the re-emergence of the ""poisons"" that fed World War II. His nemesis: unpopular classmate Hochschwender, whose unabashed Nazi-ish opinions provoke vicious classroom debate. An intriguing premise--but neither of these characters rings true. Nor does the message-y way in which Knowles manipulates them: Wexford leads the Class of '46 in a drive to install a memorial chapel window for Devon's WW II dead; when the window is broken, suspicion inevitably falls on Hochschwender, who is harassed by vigilante students and (being rheumatic) dies of a heart attack. Yet it was really right-minded Wexford, of course, a veritable Bad Seed, who himself broke the window and thus arranged Hochschwender's downfall: ""He's an incipient monster, thought Pete, and. . . we've seen in the world how monsters can come to the top and just what horrors they can achieve."" All in all, it's a fitful, muddleheaded thematic design, often leaned upon in a prosy, preachy manner; and a subplot involving two quasi-rival classmate brothers never coheres. But Knowles moves it along briskly enough; with a few evocative moments of school life--and the Separate Peace following will certainly insure a modicum of interest.

Pub Date: March 30th, 1981
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston