Love and Scandal, Buried for Years at an Elite Boarding School

By Jonathan Galassi

“Believing is the act of love,” the poet Anne Sexton wrote. In Jonathan Galassi’s sophomore novel School Days,” belief and love are often at odds. The setting is Leverett, an elite, formerly all-male boarding school in Connecticut and a stopover for the scions of old-money families before the Ivy League. When a former student claims that one of the school’s deceased “star pedagogues” sexually harassed him decades ago, Leverett’s privileged culture unravels in a narrative that cuts between 1964 and 2007.

At the center of the novel is Sam Brandt, an English teacher at Leverett who bears a striking resemblance to the author. He, like Galassi, separates from his wife in late middle age after years of stifling his gay desires. His self-reinvention is interrupted when the school’s headmaster instructs him to discreetly investigate the harassment allegations. (Why a faculty member is entrusted with such an explosive task is never satisfactorily explained.) The catch — and a clear conflict of interest — is that Sam and the accuser were classmates in the 1960s. Memories of their student days together rush back “like the slap in the face of an unexpected wave.”

Theo Gibson — a cynical, chain-smoking bachelor who cut a raffish figure on Leverett’s campus — looms over those years. Part mentor and part intellectual pugilist, Gibson imported a kind of alienated bohemianism to the school. He directed drama club productions of Beckett and Pinter, and convened a student seminar in his apartment to debate modernist poetry. “The other masters eyed him with scornful fascination,” Galassi writes. “Gibson was certainly not one of them as far as they were concerned.” It comes as no surprise (and is no spoiler) that Gibson is the harasser.

The other titan of those years is Eddie Braddock, the grandson of a five-term Republican senator and the object of Sam’s teenage lust. Other classmates fade in and out of focus, although most of the boys are entangled in casual affairs with one another. “Put warm bodies together in a sealed environment … and unnaturally intense attachments were bound to form,” Galassi writes. Yet, his rendition of heteroflexibility in Vietnam-era New England has a guilelessness that strains credulity. Boys snuggle, hold hands, confess their homosexual inclinations without shame. One confides in Sam that he is a “transvestite” and stashes books about female impersonation in his dorm room. Alongside such wishful uninhibitedness are scenes that verge on parody, as when Sam and another boy enjoy a lobster-and-champagne lunch on the beach, and the boy hands over a copy of Thomas Mann’s stories. “Read ‘Death in Venice,’” he says, referring to the classic novella about an older man’s infatuation with a beautiful boy. “It explains everything.”

Galassi, a poet and longtime publisher, has acknowledged that his 2012 poetry collection “Left-handed,” which charts a married man’s coming-out, was autobiographical. Similarly, in “School Days,” Sam’s trajectory parallels Galassi’s: Both abandon plans to become lawyers, and both go to Harvard and clinch fellowships at prestigious British universities. (Their career paths diverge from there. Sam goes on to run a classroom; Galassi, to run Farrar, Straus & Giroux.) But the novel also reads like an erotic alternate history, a corrective to real-life school crushes the author has called “unhappy and unactualized,” grafting the comparatively looser sexual mores of 2022 onto the 1960s and imagining a world in which boys can fall in bed — or in love — with one another without consequence.

Improbabilities compound and betoken a deeper murkiness in the novel’s vision. Is this the story of a gay man’s coming-of-age? Is it about the rot that many venerable institutions cover up? Is it about the bafflements of love? For Galassi, it’s about all of these, without full commitment to any one. The novel has a halting rhythm, structured as a series of vignettes that sometimes fizzle or introduce dead ends. The prose, much of it flat or clichéd, only underscores the desultory effect. Here’s one of Sam’s classmates: “His oily skin was erupting, like everyone else’s only more so.” And another boy: “He slouched like an upper-middle-class James Dean.” Breasts are “creamy”; young teachers are “sparky.” In a line that would sound rusty even in an action movie, Leverett’s headmaster says: “We had a problem. We took care of it.”

Galassi is convincing when he depicts the insularity of boarding schools and adolescent bonds. But when he tries to express the mysteries of the heart, or capture the verisimilitude of boys on the brink of manhood, he fails the grade.

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