'Lucifer with a Book' follows a year at The Academy, a remarkable institution that was founded on the idea that education is a refuge for the mind and should be available to everyone. By the late 1940s, however, The Academy shows a disturbing shift towards conservatism of an almost fascist kind, blind patriotism, psychoanalysis either condemns or apologizes for everyone, and is possessed of a faculty composed of toadies or worn-out defeatists all because of the self-interest and poor management of the principal. The Academy just might be a metaphor for someplace. Prompted by public opinion, Mr. Pilkey's brought on a bright but angry veteran to teach history. This new teacher objects to the direction the principal is taking the school, leading to conflict.
Two things stand out about 'Lucifer': its bitterness and its overt sexuality. This was published in 1949, and Burns isn't shy. There was also the movement towards standardization of schools, of politics, of image. Burns describes the beginnings of that myth of America the Wholesome. Guy Hudson and Betty Blanchard, another new teacher, are systematically opposed when they teach and grade without concessions to which students' parents are wealthier or better connected.
Burns, using Hudson, makes several powerful speeches against the dangers of conformity, of forcing teachers to prepare their students to take tests rather than think critically, to parrot what the government, or at least the principal, wants them to say about America instead of asking questions. These are excellent points and their timing is important. Burns drew much of this novel from his personal experiences, however, so much of the content is lost in the acid of the characterization and the evident revenge the author was exacting on his former colleagues. No matter how justified it may be, a screed is a screed and not very much fun to read.
What was sometimes fun to read, more often disturbing and icky, was that Lucifer places so much emphasis on the sensuality of men, the shrill nervousness of women without men and almost every conceivable pairing possible on a prep school campus that the plot is at times secondary. The principle is introduced as a man in his prime being offered the job while he strips off his football uniform, the handsome and scarred protagonist Guy Hudson closes in on the other new teacher Miss Blanchard even while he is himself admired by many of the boys, the cloistered ladies of the girls' faculty cling to each other, one of the faculty wives has her "club" of handsome athletes, one professor appears to sleeps with about a third of the boys school, and obviously the students have their own associations with each other. A lot goes on.
John Horne Burns was talented and 'Lucifer with a Book' was almost great. His WWII novel 'The Gallery' showed a very different and very real side of life at war in Europe and North Africa. He blunted the edge of his writing with compassion, and when lacking that, humor. The way the characters interacted, how they were described, it was all open and astonishingly honest. There are no blunt edges here. With a few deep breaths and some outside criticism, this novel could have developed into something transformative, but it never gets there.