Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews



The Headmaster Ritual by Taylor Antrim








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Taylor Antrim’s debut novel, The Headmaster Ritual, is set in a Massachusetts prep school. With a bow to the expression, “Those who can’t do, teach,” the protagonist, Dyer Martin, failed as a salesman, and ended up being hired as a teacher. The school’s headmaster is a radical obsessed with North Korea and uses Martin to lead a team of students at a model U.N. conference in which they play the part of the North Koreans. Along the way, on multiple levels, power builds up and blows, with boys being boys in hazing, romance and power plays. Here’s an excerpt, pp. 16-21, featuring the headmaster’s son, James, who attends the school:


The third floor of Weiss consisted of four double rooms, a group bathroom, and one single. The hall was empty and quiet when James reached the landing at the top of the stairs. The brass num­ber plates on his door were missing— in their place lay darker paint studded by nails. James crouched down and sniffed the cir­cular tan stain at the base of the door. Mildew, then an acrid chem­ical scent, then, running underneath, the sweet rot of meat.

James knew the story from eavesdropping on lunchtime gos­sip last year. That spring —before they all got busted for drinking and before Henry got kicked out — the third-floor Weiss guys had engaged in two weeks of Property. It began small, as Property al­ways did: Henry Fieldspar threw a stack of Cary Street's CDs out the window, smashing them on the brick walk. Cary then dropped a framed photo of the Fieldspar family in the toilet. Property had to escalate, so Henry slid a chicken leg behind Cary's radiator. A week later, with pudgy maggots climbing his wall, Cary recruited Sam Rafton and, from the chemistry lab, stole a specimen jar with a calf s brain floating in a quart of formaldehyde. At 2:00 A.M. they upended the thing outside Henry's door and knocked.

James stared at the stain on the carpet. By tomorrow night, he thought, the seniors would be up here. Sam, Cary, Buddy Ju­liver, Brian Jones, the others. Each one of them must have put their names into the Weiss room lottery for room 12. And the headmas­ter's kid had had it handed to him.

All last year, crossing campus, eating lunch in Commons, studying in the library reading room, James had felt independent and anonymous. Hardly anyone paid any attention to him; no one even seemed to know or care that he was the headmaster's son. In class, he made a few friends, Jeffrey Cohen from Chemistry, Volker Stein, the German exchange student, in U.S. History. He hadn't been lonely.

He'd told his dad all of this, but Wolfe had made it clear that his decision was final. "You can't go on isolating yourself from your peers," he'd said. He'd made James pack or box up every­thing in his room, relenting only on the framed picture of his mom that James had wanted to leave. "You need to commit," Wolfe had said. "I don't want you to think you can just come back if things get difficult."

James figured he was being taught a lesson. Like when he was fight and his dad swore off gift-giving. "The spirit of Capitalism," he'd said of the Christmas tree James and his mother had deco­rated. Or the time Wolfe had sat James down, at age fourteen, for documentary on the My Lai massacre. "See what your government will do," he'd said warmly in James's ear as a gray heap of Vietnamese bodies filled the screen. The lesson could be about equality, the unity of the collective — like the sheep farm in Ver­mont his parents had lived on briefly their first year out of Har­vard. They made cheese and walnut bread that they sold at the local farmers' markets. "Our year in utopia," his father called it.

But Weiss was the opposite of a commune. The seniors took whatever they wanted out of the rooms of the lower-form guys on the ground floor — CDs, DVDs, any food they could find. Lowers had to clean rooms and answer the communal pay phone on the third floor, even though they lived two flights down (the head-of-dorm apartment filled the second floor). It would ring, and one of the seniors would shout "Lower!" till someone started climb­ing the stairs. More than six rings, and a lower would get tackled on his way to the shower, have his head dunked in a toilet. Any new kid, no matter what year, got hazed. James slumped against the hallway wall feeling a tense, held-breath quality in the silence around him. He'd wanted a small room in an uncool boys' dorm, a safe place to hide out till spring. This special treatment was a di­saster.

He let himself into his new room.

Sunlight poured in from the big window on the east wall. A single bed was tucked into the corner. The closet door stood ajar. An extension cord snaked across the wood floor. Bright rectangles of white marked the locations of old posters.

A girl sat against the far wall.

Her name was Jane Hirsch. James recognized her from Calcu­lus and Chemistry. She sat cross-legged, her hands cupping her ankles, a Polaroid camera resting in her lap like a pet. Her eyes were closed. Photos lay scattered around her knees.

James pushed his bag inside the doorway with his foot, and Jane's eyes snapped open. She blinked at him for a few indecisive seconds, then lifted the camera. The flash went off; the camera whirred out film.

"Hi," she said.

James nervously eyed the photos. Henry Fieldspar smiling. Henry frowning. The side of Henry's head. James remembered — also from Commons gossip — that Jane and Henry had been a couple in the spring. That they'd logged multiple afternoons in this very room, on that bed in the corner.

James and Jane stared at each other.

"Came in the window," Jane said, and pointed.

James crossed to the sill and leaned out. A fire escape, a vertical ladder bolted to the brick, lay six inches to the left of the opening, the rungs corroded orange with rust.

He turned around. He still hadn't said anything. What could he say? "How was your summer?"

"Fine," she said. "I did four weeks of Mandarin at Yale. You?" "Waited tables at Scudo's in North Britton."

"Cool," she said.

He shook his head. Jane stacked the photos in a pile and turned them facedown. She didn't seem to be leaving. "You taking 250?" he asked.

"Yeah," she said.

"I saw the guy teaching it," James said.

"What'd he look like?"

"Young, I guess."

He tried not to stare at her heavy black eyebrows, at the white skin of her neck. She wore frayed jeans, flip-flops, and a Britton soccer T-shirt. She played center forward, cocaptain of the team, James knew. He remembered crusty scabs on her knees in Calc. He remembered once seeing her cross campus after a game — her wet black hair pulled into a ponytail, her soccer shorts rolled on her hips, her shins flushed, mottled from the guards.

"So you're taking Henry's room," she said.

"I don't want it. It's been assigned to me."

"Better you than one of those assholes," she said, nodding in the direction of the empty hall.

"I'm not sure the assholes will feel the same way."

"They won't do anything."

James just stared at her.

Jane stood and slid the photos in the back pocket of her jeans. The camera dangled from her wrist. "Do you mind not telling any­one I was here?"

"Why are you?"

She made a quiet, relieved sound, as if pleased James had fi­nally asked. "I didn't think anyone would be moving in yet." Si­lence. "I miss Henry. I know it's stupid or girly or whatever."

"Have you heard from him?" James finally asked.

"I saw him this summer when he came up to Yale. He's gone to this boys' school outside of Lexington. They have to wear uni­forms."

"Funny," said James, keeping his voice dull and neutral.

"He's trying to get back in here to save his chances at George­town. Or, like, Choate. Exeter might even take him. His grand­father went there or something"

"I didn't know him that well," James said, his gaze leveled off her left shoulder.

"I know," she said, and pushed a few strands of hair behind her ear.

"I guess I'll see you in class:"

"Class isn't until next week. Come over to Bachelor tonight. Bunch of seniors who're here already are getting together. Sign-in is lax since school hasn't technically begun."

Was that a joke? She must know he didn't go to parties. "I have to unpack," he said.

Jane grinned at the single duffel on the floor. "Want some help?"

James nudged the door. It swung on a whiny hinge.

"Well," she said. "You know where Bachelor is"

She turned to go, and James's eyes fell on the photos stuffed into the seat pocket of her jeans. He also noticed the silver anklet that hung between her frayed cuff and callused heel. A gift from Henry? She hadn't worn it last year. He would have seen it. She passed down the stairs, out of sight.

James closed the door and sat down on the corner of the bed. Through the open window, he could see straight across the road that separated East and West Quad, could see the shingled cor­ner of Bachelor beyond the roof of Commons and the leafy tops of birch trees.

He kept swallowing, trying to calm down.

He imagined Henry waiting for Jane with his window open, some night in April before he got kicked out. He imagined Jane sprinting from her dorm, from hedge to hedge, skirting the sides of buildings, following the shadows on the ground. He imagined Henry listening for Jane on the ladder outside. There were cam­pus patrols, and cruising was a probationary offense. Still, Henry had had the privacy of a single, they'd had this narrow bed to themselves, and they'd been falling in love.

James lay flat on his back. Glow-in-the-dark sticker stars spelled FUCK BRITTON on the ceiling.

Home could be anywhere, James told himself. The less you cared about where you lived, the better off you were.

I’ll be fine. What could they do to him? How bad could it be? He thought of the photo, the one Jane had taken of him when he came in. He took a deep breath, and a delicate floral scent reached him. Perfume — and running underneath like a fetid stream, that meaty rot.

He thought of the calf, wondered if it had ever been born, if it ever had any thoughts, even dumb bovine thoughts, before losing its brain to science.


There’s an intensity to the prep school years, and in a boarding setting, the intensity becomes similar to a hothouse, which Antrim captures well on these pages. The whole North Korea motif seems forced, but in many ways, the whole novel is about force. On page 279, that’s well-summarized: “This was the lesson learned this year, more important than any of his classwork: force built up inside you, and you let it out.” The Headmaster Ritual is a promising debut novel, just quirky enough to be entertaining.  


Steve Hopkins, September 25, 2007



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 in the October 2007 issue of Executive Times


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