The Headmaster Ritual

by Taylor Antrim

Taylor Antrim’s debut novel is a darkly comic, clear-eyed look at hidden worlds whose complexities and rules can be understood only from inside: the insular hothouse of boarding school, the thorny dynamics between father and son, and the self-delusion of blind ideological commitment.

Dyer Martin, a new history teacher at the prestigious Britton School, arrives in the fall ready to close the door on the failures and disappointments of his past: a disastrous first job, a broken relationship, and acute uncertainty about his future. James, a lonely senior, just wants to make it through his last year unscathed, avoiding both the brutal hazing of dorm life and the stern and unforgiving eye of his father, the school’s politically radical headmaster, Edward Wolfe.

Soon, however, both Dyer and James are inescapably drawn into Wolfe’s hidden agenda for Britton, as the headmaster orders Dyer to set up and run a Model UN Club for students. As the United States moves steadily toward a conflict with an increasingly hostile North Korea -- whose pursuit of nuclear technology is pushing the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon -- Wolfe’s political fervor begins to consume him, and he sets in motion a plan that will jeopardize his job, his school, and even the life of his own son.

With precisely controlled, deceptively subtle storytelling, The Headmaster Ritual is an insightful and captivating examination of the halting, complicated course young men must chart to shake off the influence of fathers -- and father figures -- while refining their convictions about the world and their place in it.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780618756827
  • ISBN-10: 0618756825
  • Pages: 320
  • Publication Date: 07/09/2007
  • Carton Quantity: 24

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About the Book
About the Author
Excerpts
  • About the Book
    Taylor Antrim’s debut novel is a darkly comic, clear-eyed look at hidden worlds whose complexities and rules can be understood only from inside: the insular hothouse of boarding school, the thorny dynamics between father and son, and the self-delusion of blind ideological commitment.

    Dyer Martin, a new history teacher at the prestigious Britton School, arrives in the fall ready to close the door on the failures and disappointments of his past: a disastrous first job, a broken relationship, and acute uncertainty about his future. James, a lonely senior, just wants to make it through his last year unscathed, avoiding both the brutal hazing of dorm life and the stern and unforgiving eye of his father, the school’s politically radical headmaster, Edward Wolfe.

    Soon, however, both Dyer and James are inescapably drawn into Wolfe’s hidden agenda for Britton, as the headmaster orders Dyer to set up and run a Model UN Club for students. As the United States moves steadily toward a conflict with an increasingly hostile North Korea -- whose pursuit of nuclear technology is pushing the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon -- Wolfe’s political fervor begins to consume him, and he sets in motion a plan that will jeopardize his job, his school, and even the life of his own son.

    With precisely controlled, deceptively subtle storytelling, The Headmaster Ritual is an insightful and captivating examination of the halting, complicated course young men must chart to shake off the influence of fathers -- and father figures -- while refining their convictions about the world and their place in it.

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  • About the Author
  • Excerpts
    <div>Prologue July<br><br> Dyer martin curled his fingers through the chainlink and stared at the empty field of shrub. Riverside County sunlight found shards of glass among scattered rocks and twinkled in his direction. Tufts of foot-high desert grass waved gentle hellos in the Santa Ana’s hot breath. Jim Simon, Dyer’s boss at Virgenes Development Corporation, had ordered him to take a look at the twenty-five acres he’d claimed for the company, to look at the stalled housing developments that surrounded it, to crouch down and sniff the chromium VI– and perchlorate-saturated soil. So Dyer had taken the 91 east, driving through a desert landscape of malls with empty parking lots, vacant glass-and-steel office parks, and windmill farms stretching to the Santa Ana mountains. Off the freeway exit just west of Perris, Dyer passed Palm Crest, a checkerboard of exposed foundations and roofless homes. “That’s a slice of wasteland you bought us,” Jim Simon had said with something like satisfaction, guiding Dyer out the glass office doors and into the parking lot, squeezing his shoulder in a kind, fatherly way. They both stood beside Dyer’s car, and Dyer enjoyed the weight and warmth of Simon’s hand. “But don’t worry,” Simon had said, smiling and letting him go. “This is why we have lawyers.” From the time Dyer came on as a junior associate, Jim Simon had told him to be aggressive and creative in exploring opportunities — and to liaise only with him, not any other partner at Virgenes. So on a week when Simon was golfing in Maui, a broker named Jimmy Veltramo rung his extension, and Dyer took the call. Veltramo had described the Inland Empire plot’s proximity to Palm Crest, a community of luxury homes, median price 500K, average owner age 29.9, average income high 80s. There was a dearth of shopping in the area, Veltramo said; perfect opportunity for a commercial developer like Virgenes. Timing was a problem; Dyer didn’t want to call Simon on his vacation, and Veltramo needed a letter of intent signed by Friday, or he’d take the offer to another company. LOIs were standard practice — and nonbinding; Simon signed them all the time. A signature would pull the property off the market for thirty days. Veltramo could courier the LOI right then; Dyer could always let the period expire without a deal. But Dyer hadn’t caught the clause nestled in a block of type on the back side of page three. The $500,000 Veltramo required for failure to negotiate a purchase and sale agreement. Nor had he checked a Phase 1 environmental report on the land. Nor had he checked the zoning. Now there was half a million due on a zonedresidential plot with groundwater contamination in the middle of nowhere. A bad blunder, a job-ending blunder. Dyer stood at the chainlink fence that surrounded the property, his ulcer throbbing deep within him, his mouth dry and sour, and he felt the guilt and embarrassment he’d been carrying around all week. He counted the things he could call his own — a dirt-colored Honda, a suitcase’s worth of clothes, the rising knowledge that he had never really wanted to work in real estate for his girlfriend’s father anyway. Escape would be natural, a matter of Dyer’s patrimony, of DNA, of blood-borne instinct. And there was his Honda, parked behind him, the driver’s door ajar, the key-in-ignition tone pinging. But Dyer was determined to stay in California and make it up to Jim Simon. He told himself that he loved Alice and didn’t want to lose her. Dyer put a foot in the chainlink and began to climb. The spiked top raked his thigh, tearing his suit pants as he swung a leg over. His knees buckled on the hard-packed sand. Stepping over bent lengths of rebar and miniature, thorny cacti, Dyer began to walk the boundary. The air wobbled with heat. Jim Simon had said wasteland, and yet with a little optimism, Dyer thought, with an eye for potential, you could imagine the sturdy geometry of a multilevel parking garage out here, or a retirement community of fountains and palm groves. He blinked hard, then blinked again, playing peekaboo with the view. The visions kept coming: a twenty-five-screen cineplex, blink, a petting zoo. He knew his ideas were impractical — there wasn’t another person for miles. And yet to Dyer they felt like guy wires streaming off his body, digging into the earth, steadying him. A black snake, like a discarded bicycle tube, lay down the fence line. He felt behind him for the fence, for its reassuring grid of hot steel. Dyer took a long breath, more visions flaring within him. He thought of < Alice at her desk, lit by her laptop screen — her thick auburn hair, her gently curving upper lip, her little belly, those things that made his heart race. Sunlight blinded him, bulleting off a broken bottttttle of Miller Lite. He ffffelt his hot ulcer prodding him in thhe stomach. HHe felt the half-million dollars clinging to his back. He felt the wires fray and snap. 1 September <br><br>We were supposed to meet this morning?” asked Dyer, standing in the shaded portico of Headmaster Wolfe’s residence, the humid Massachusetts air on him like a quilt. “Agreed,” said Edward Wolfe with his hand on the door’s brass knob. He moved out of the way. “Come in.” Dyer dipped his head and passed inside. The air had a still, musty smell, as if the windows hadn’t been opened all summer. The hardwood floor in the wide foyer was bare except for a coarse straw mat and an Oriental rug rolled up like a sausage along the wall. Muddy running shoes sat on a radiator; a loose stack of mail covered a table by the door. An ornately framed portrait — old, Dyer thought, the paint webbed with cracks — of a black-suited couple in twin wooden chairs was propped against the wall. In its place hung a framed sheet of yellow paper with a typed list of names. Curious, Dyer took a closer look. Halfway down the page, he stopped: “Edward Wolfe; Boston, MA; Harvard; SDS.” Dyer felt Wolfe at his side and realized the headmaster had him by a good half inch. His jaw was block-shaped beneath coarse gray stubble, his lips, fish-white and thin. Body heat came off him in waves, mingled with a clean, soapy smell. Dyer told himself to look at Wolfe directly, to find his eyes in their deep-set sockets. Even though Roberta O’Brien, dean of faculty, had offered him the job, even though he’d signed tax forms, even though there’d been a welcome letter for him in his Bailey House faculty apartment, this morning could still be some sort of final interview, a chance for Wolfe to make up his own mind. In late July during his interview with O’Brien, she’d said that Britton’s headmaster had left a tenured post in Harvard’s History Department to run the school. “He was looking for a more institutional role. To bring a progressive approach to the classroom,” she’d said. “So he wants young, less traditionally trained teachers, candidates with higher academic degrees, not graduates of education programs.” Dyer, with no prior teaching experience, with his Oxford M.Phil. in History, was “just the sort of candidate he’s looking for,” she’d said. A reassuring memory — but Headmaster Wolfe had never met Dyer. And there had to have been more qualified candidates vying for the position. Lots of them. A teaching post at Britton was something of a coup, and they could probably get a
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