A review by haleyapratt
The Headmaster Ritual by Taylor Antrim


During the first half of this book, I was thinking I would probably give it three stars. The writing flowed well for the most part, and there were even hints that some of the characters might get pretty interesting as things progressed. Admittedly, a story about upper-middle class white boys and men was probably never going to knock my socks off, but I thought Antrim was basically doing a decent job.

As the book went on, however, I found myself more and more irritated by certain elements of the story (and no, I'm not talking about the North Korea thing). Antrim failed to portray women complexly throughout the novel, and certain passages were plainly sexist. The first example of this to stand out to me was a description of Louise. Immediately after her 4.0 grades and impressive knowledge of current events were pointed out, her positive attributes were described only as, "rich, pretty, popular" (pp.187). What about SMART? What about INSIGHTFUL? What about something to actually humanize her and recognize that she works hard for her success?

I could let a single incident go, though. Maybe the narrator, Dyer, was just not an especially thoughtful or enlightened character, and maybe this didn't actually reflect on Antrim's view of women. But no. A mere chapter later, I read this passage:

"They don't think. They just do. A seventeen-year-old girl's reductive assessment of the North Korean national character had started to seem, in the hours since the students had cleared out of his apartment, like words to live by." (pp.221)

Surely what was strange about Dyer's realization in this passage was that a student's cursory understanding of North Korean politics was actually inspiring him to act more boldly. So, it should have just read, "A seventeen-year-old's reductive assessment." What was the purpose of noting that a girl said it? Jane just gave the speech; the readers would still remember who said it. The implication here was that this turn of events was even more shocking because a girl suggested it. Not just a teenager, but a teenage girl.

Because this second example again came from Dyer's point of view, I still couldn't be sure that this was an issue with Antrim rather than his characters. And so, here is an example of sexism in James' part of the story. At one point, a friend of James gives him advice on how to get the girl, saying, "Listen to me: You need a set of balls. You need to go out there and take her" (pp.261). Not "You need to talk to her" or "You need to show her what a great guy you are" and certainly not "Maybe you just need to respect that she is a thinking person who can decide to be with someone who isn't you." No, James needs to go and TAKE her.

Obviously I'm looking at this book from one perspective, but there were shortcomings in other areas as well. One other issue that comes to mind is the homogeneity of the characters. I don't recall any meaningful inclusion of people of color, other than "an Asian man" who was, of course, a North Korean terrorist.

So. I guess what I'm saying is that I didn't have high hopes for this book, but it failed to even meet my low expectations. Hopefully Antrim can reflect a little more critically on his own social position before he writes his next novel.