BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

In changing worlds ...

I have frequently wondered why particular books have ended up at the dollar store, but there are also ones that seem to make sense being in that channel. The current book, Geoffrey Douglas' The Classmates: Privilege, Chaos, and the End of an Era, is, unfortunately, one of the latter. While politics is certainly an evergreen topic, the losers of elections tend to quickly fade, if not from the collective memory (although that's certainly a possibility – I wonder how many people could come up with Dukakis' name unaided) at least from the place where anybody really cares.

This book is about John Kerry's boarding school classmates back in the late 1950's and early 1960's – specifically the Class of 1962 of the all-boys St. Paul's School in Concord, NH (a long-established “feeder” for the likes of Yale). One gets the impression that on some level the book really wishes that it had been about Kerry, but he turned out to be a fairly uncooperative participant in this.

The Classmates has its genesis in some e-mail exchanges during the 2004 election. As one would expect, if one had a classmate who was running for President, it would be a topic of discussion, and a certain percentage of the class were participating in the back-and-forth of remembrance of events some four decades previous. That, of course, was a very different world, with a very stratified culture (of which the boys at St. Paul's were primarily “upper crust” ... if not currently from money, from long-time “position” in the northeast), and in a time where the influence of the Viet Nam conflict was just ramping up. There were echoes of this world that I was familiar with, as I had attended an all-boys school in Manhattan in my early years (admittedly nearly a generation later), one that had been established in 1628 by the Dutch West India Company, and was populated by a similar mix of “names”. These were boys being prepared to run the world, only their world was going to be going through seismic changes over the decades ahead.

While the impetus of the book was the Kerry candidacy, the glue of the book is a character (featured pseudonymously) of another student there who did not fit in, and was the brunt of the sort of hazing that one can easily imagine in this sort of setting. Called “Arthur” here, his story weaves in and out of the rest of the narrative.

I think it's appropriate to note that the author, Geoffrey Douglas, was a mess, and was “invited to not return” to the school well prior to the graduation of the Class of 1962. Complicating matters, he was a “legacy” student, with numerous members of his family having been St. Paul products, so he is up against a mass of expectations that he can not meet. He spends much of his early adulthood in the thralls of alcoholism and gambling addictions, and the various financial straits brought on by these. Obviously, this did not help his connection with others in the class, as he wasn't there for much of what they recalled of their school years. His one main “vignette” with Kerry, the sharpest and most defining memory he had of their interactions while he was at the school, was not remembered by the Senator at all. There is much here that suffers from this disconnect.

Aside from the story of “Arthur” (whose abuse then and sudden death in the midst of the class' communications during the Kerry campaign is the unifying theme), there are in-depth looks at a half-dozen other classmates, discussing who they were, where they came from, and where they ended up. Some died in the war, some went to southeast Asia and came back irrevocably scarred, some found great success, others learned to manage in a drastically changing world. Add to these the chapter on Kerry, and the chapter dealing with the author, and you have the book. I'm sure this is not the book that the author envisioned writing. I'd guess that he didn't expect to get exactly 45 minutes to meet with Kerry, who had his press secretary in the room, taking notes. It took him four years to complete, and one has to wonder how much he had to change what he intended for it. The few folks discussed here were winnowed down from an initial group of 40 classmates, and the sense I get is that Douglas had to find a way to move this past a “hey, we knew this guy when” feature (perhaps in opposition to the “swift boat” sub-genre that arose out of Kerry's war contacts), and into a more general look at how America changed from the 1950's.

Again, I trail the subjects here by only a dozen or so years, so much of what's involved, as remembrances and contexts, touch me more than they might others. Each of the classmates profiled here had their own path through the changing world, and at least the author does not “beat you over the head” with symbolism relating to those changes. Their stories stand as poignant looks into lives that had certain connecting threads, and their combination leaves the impression of something of a word-portrait Guernica for this tumultuous half-century.

The Classmates is still in print, but I suspect that it might not be easy to find on store shelves after having run through the dollar store channel. The on-line big boys have it, at as much as 60% off the cover price, and the new/used guys have new copies for as little as three bucks. This is not an easy book to recommend, as my #1 take-away was that it was a failed (or at least seriously detoured) project … but my #2 take-away is that it, in the end, does provide a sense of how the changes in our nation made deep changes in this generation … so if this sounds good to you, do pick up a copy.

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Tags: book review
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