Tom Dolby, 2008, 310 p.
I’d like to be a total meany brat about Mr. Dolby in this post, but I’m going to try to practice a little restraint. After all, this is only his second book, and he looks so wistful in some of his photographs. So, I’ll try to be semi-kind by saying this: The Sixth Form is okay. There, I’ve said it. It’s not good or bad, it’s just “meh.” It’s one of those novels that are entirely forgettable. If I weren’t writing about it in this blog, I wouldn’t remember it by the end of the year, or even the end of this month. So much for restraint!
It’s too bad that I read this right on the heels of The Pale Blue Eye, which is a superb novel. I kept comparing the two books, which I know is a dreadful thing to do, but I couldn’t help myself. Louis Bayard writes such realistic characters that there are times when you feel like you can reach out and touch them. His settings are almost perfect and his plots are exciting and full of really fun twists and turns. Dolby’s young male characters, on the other hand, are wooden and emotionless and the plot essentially goes nowhere very quickly. I realize that young men sometimes have trouble expressing emotion, but come on! These characters are like marionettes! Even their inner thoughts are superficial and meaningless. The Sixth Form is just that: meandering and meaningless. It is also mediocre, meagre and monochromatic in scope. Hah, obliteration through alliteration!
The novel is about a couple of boys, Todd Elton and Ethan Whitley, who become friends during their senior year at an exclusive prep school in Massachusetts. Todd is popular and athletic and Ethan is shy and bookish, you know, the usual stereotypes. Todd is gay and has a crush on Ethan, but Ethan is oblivious to this. Todd has a one-nighter with a gay man in New York City and Ethan has an affair with a mentally-disturbed teacher named Hannah McClellan. She tries to ensnare him in her web of deceit, but he manages to wriggle his way out of it.
The Sixth Form is not a well-balanced novel. I might have appreciated Todd’s homosexual awakening more if it hadn’t seemed so casual. It didn’t seem real to me. After Todd finally begins to admit to himself that he’s gay, he dumps his girlfriend, goes to this gay man that he met in New York, has very quick and passionless sex, and then goes home again. So dull! The same can be said for Ethan and Hannah’s affair. It just didn’t move me at all. In a way, it kind of made me a little queasy because of all the recent stories about female teachers seducing their underage male students. Remember Mary Kay Letourneau? She married her young lover after being released from prison.
Remember this teacher?
At least Ethan was 18, so he was legal. I recall thinking that the Hannah/Ethan affair represents every young heterosexual man’s wet dream, but I don’t believe this was Dolby’s intent. This part wasn’t supposed to be like The Graduate (Mr. Dolby’s favorite movie), was it? God, I hope not!
I did some reading on Tom Dolby this morning. He seems like an interesting guy. He’s quite wealthy (heir to the Dolby stereo fortune), and is very much a part of the New York social scene. Perhaps, given time, he’ll become as good at writing as he is at socializing. Maybe he’ll become sophisticated enough to create fully-fleshed out characters and infuse some life and grit into his novels. I think he should steer clear of stereotypes and take a few more risks with his writing from now on.