Fifteen years after he graduated from the Devon School, Gene returns to his polished and prosperous boarding school in New England. The rainy occasion prompts him to remember his last seasons as a student, particularly the summer of 1942, when he was sixteen. In these days, Gene's friendship with the charismatic Phineas dominated his mind and being. He and other Devon students understood that once they collect their diploma, they will be shuffled off to war. This era of Latin classes and baseball games are, then, both bucolic and doomed. When present-day Gene chooses to visit the "fearful sites" of a certain marble staircase and a certain foreboding tree by the river, we readers understand that things don't end well in A Separate Peace by John Knowles.
Devon, incidentally, is an imagined version of Phillips Exeter Academy, where Knowles graduated from in 1945. Phillips Exeter's website features an essay by Knowles discussing his experience with the school and (some of) the real-life rhymes in the novel.
I had hopes for this book. I'm intrigued by the "separate peace" of the title, that eerily transient time of late boyhood during a global war. The adults among this young generation fear for their death and injury, and they say so, while at the same time indulging their last, late, spurts of childishness.
In this vein, Knowles presents fascinating questions about the nature of the "enemy," and about how easily we are lured into violently opposing another being. Phineas is out of step in this. He invents a game called "blitzball" in which there is no winner. When he unofficially breaks a school swimming record, he has no desire to recreate the feat and have his name replace the previous record-holder. He wants to be a soldier, but Gene believes he will make a terrible one -- more likely to invite the Germans over to their side of the trench for a game of ball.
I was also intrigued to see how Knowles, writing in 1959, worked with the homoeroticism in the fraught relationship between Gene and Phineas. But from the beginning, this novel is ultimately too blatant for me to be happy with it. The textual chatter works from the edges in, dissolving the story's substance. It has all the subtlety of a stubbed toe.
In language dripping with nostalgia before it is earned, everything falls into type: Gene is 'the introverted one,' Phineas is 'the daredevil,' the charmer who gets away with everything. The tension and darkness that enters their romantically-tinged friendship comes thick with exposition. When a retrospective first-person narrator positions everything in his story as emblematic, including himself, the story is overwhelmed with a sense of narcissism and entitlement.
A Separate Peace is the author's first novel; I wish it weren't. I wish John Knowles had written enough before this to trust his story, so he wouldn't feel he needed to blare out the themes in hyper-literal narration.
My opinion appears to be in the minority. This slim book was a bestseller for more than thirty years and a finalist for the National Book Award.