Current book: A Separate Peace
Pages read: 120 - 204 (end)
Well, predictably, Finny is unable to sustain his denial of the war, and Gene is unable to staunch the flow of his guilt. Both are eaten up by their particular demons, and they spend the year mutually trying to ignore them. One of the other boys, an especially sensitive and artistic kid called Lepellier, enlists in the middle of the year. Later, he sends Gene a telegram asking for his help. When Gene goes to him, he discovers that Lepellier has lost his mind because of the pressure of boot camp, and gone AWOL to avoid a Section Eight discharge (discharge because of mental unsoundness). Gene is, of course, disturbed by his experience, and it serves as a warning to him that the war, and, in fact, the world, are far darker and more dangerous than the isolation of Devon Prep would have all of them believe.
On a fateful night in late winter of that year, one of the ringleaders of the class decides that he'd like to get to the bottom of Finny's accident, and so has the other boys drag Gene and Phineas to a sort of mock trial, at midnight, to determine the truth. It all has the air of a joke, but there's something sinister about it, too. In the end, the truth does, in fact, out, and Phineas, running away in blind horror at Gene's admission of guilt, falls on the stairs and re-injures his broken leg. Gene goes to apologize to him, and the two reach some kind of uneasy forgiveness, but there's the sense that Finny can't ever really forgive Gene - not for betraying him and breaking his leg, but rather for embodying the deeply flawed nature of humanity. (All right, all right, I know I'm getting all English major on you, but this sort of thing does actually exist in literature. We call it a theme.) The next day, Gene learns that Phineas died under the anesthetic while the doctor was setting the break, and the book concludes with scenes of the boys of Devon enlisting and going off to war.
The problem with summarizing this novel is the fact that not a great deal happens; it's how it happens that's important. It's a coming-of-age novel, sure, so there's the classic theme of the acceptance of both maturity and mortality, but it's all set in the light of the inhumanity of oneself and the world. Knowles achieves this by filtering that inhumanity through the lenses of both Gene's betrayal and the impending war, and the effect is subtler than it sounds. Rather than hitting you over the head with the realization that cruelty happens on both personal and international scales, Knowles allows you to understand it through the events of daily life at a prep school. All right, he goes a little too far with Gene's first-person retrospective reflection at the very end, but for the most part he does it extremely well. This is a beautiful little book, and certainly worthy of this list. (Two in a row! Has that even happened before?)
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