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Academy X


Academy X

I didn't go to Academy X, and I don't think you did either. If you did attend that august (but imaginary) upper-crust Ivy-prep institution or one of its Manhattan counterparts, I expect you aren't reading this review --- you already have your copy preordered, so you can tell who the players are without a scorecard. The rest of us will have to muddle through, as we always do.

The Academy X that first-time novelist Andrew Trees describes is similar to your high school and mine only in the awfulness of its institutional cuisine. This particular school is a chunk of neo-Gothic architecture in a ritzy Manhattan neighborhood, reserved for the best and brightest of the children of the upper class. (Well, maybe not the brightest. And maybe not the best, for that matter.) The purpose of Academy X is placing its young, fresh-faced clientele into Ivy League colleges, or as close as the "college counseling department" can manage.

At one point in time, it might have been possible to deposit one's child into an Ivy League college, just as one deposits money in a trust fund --- or, to be more accurate, a college endowment. But competition for a very few places in Ivy League freshman classes, we learn, has become so vicious and cutthroat that even parents who send their children to places like Academy X have to strain just to shoehorn their children into the door. (You see, one can't risk having one's children missing out on Princeton and having to go to Wellesley.) Then there's the consideration that some of the children that Academy X is trying to squeeze into the doors of America's top collegiate institutions simply are too drug-addled or weak-minded to compete, even with generous parental donations greasing the skids.

This is the world in which Trees --- himself a teacher --- operates, and ACADEMY X works best when it is satirizing --- that is to say, telling the exact truth --- about the pressures of dealing with rich, spoiled people demanding that their rich, spoiled children get the grades and recommendation letters and awards needed to advance to the next stage of their education. When ACADEMY X stays with its material, it is a bracing, sardonic delight. The story sparkles with wry observations about parental culture in Manhattan and the excesses therein, told with the ring of truth or something close enough to it.

Trees tells his story from the first person point of view, in the guise of John Spencer, a near-penniless English teacher trying to interest bored, oversexualized seniors in the novels of Jane Austen, with predictable results. Spencer is painfully honest, which for him means a substantial degree of self-deprecation, not to say self-loathing. When Spencer is describing his own social awkwardness in his pursuit of a comely librarian (with a taste for lobster and courtside Knicks tickets), his narration is endearing in its embarrassment and desperation. But when that same embarrassment crosses into his relationship with his (thinly clad) female students, the tone becomes uncomfortable and more than a bit creepy.

Still, the Spencer character (or lack of character, if you will) isn't the problem with ACADEMY X. For a short book, it can be a tough slog at times, largely due to the difficulty Trees has with his supporting characters. The teachers and students who populate Trees's elite school are all archetypes of one thing or another --- the MIT-bound Dungeons and Dragons enthusiast, the doddering head of the English department, the socially impaired science teacher, the striving scholarship student seeking to keep up with her fashion-conscious classmates by prowling the outlet malls. It's not that these characters are unlike those you and I went to school with, it's that they're exactly like that --- enough so that they're never anything but cardboard.

Despite the difficulties in characterization and the constant self-pitying tone, ACADEMY X is an accurate and scathing portrait of its environment and its denizens, told with verve and wit. It manages to be smarter than its students ever will be; whether that's a real accomplishment or not, you'll have to decide for yourself.


Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on December 22, 2010

Academy X
by Andrew Trees

  • Publication Date: May 29, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • ISBN-10: 1596911786
  • ISBN-13: 9781596911789