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A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace - John Knowles You don't remember the past as a whole, just the vivid images that made enough of an impression to stick. One of those memories for me was the day my father started to teach me to drive. I was excited to be gaining mobility and all the freedoms that go with it. Most of my friends already had their licenses, and I was eager to join them. It was a sunny Saturday morning in July. I was wearing a stupid yellow t-shirt with a hot air balloons graphic on it (why do I remember that?). We got in our little silver Toyota hatchback, which had been baking in the sun, and was about 120 degrees inside, and Dad- who clearly had something on his mind, but is not really given to long-winded lectures, looked at me and said: "When you start driving, your Mother is going to be worried about your safety, but I'm going to be worried about you hitting somebody. A car is the fastest way to ruin your life forever. It only takes a second to kill someone, but you'll live with the guilt and the legal consequences for the rest of your life."Shit. I didn't know what to say. So many times before, he probably gave me good advice that I just blew off for one reason or another, but not this time. His statement was so self-evident, there was no room for discussion or denial. He couldn't have affected me any more if he had hit me in the teeth with a hammer. Sitting there, buckled up and suddenly not-so-ready to go, I knew if I ever was involved in a vehicular manslaughter, I would remember this moment like a big "I told you so", making things all the worse. In three decades of driving, I must have relived those few seconds with Dad a thousand times over, and pictured each time what would happen if I accidentally killed somebody.A Separate Peace is about a kid who, in a split second, ruins his life and somebody else's. It's about insecure Gene, attending Devon prep school around 1940. Academically, he's above average, but small for his age, and scrawny, making him overly self-conscious about his limited atheltic abilities. What he secretly yearns for is distinction and popularity -which his academic achievements have not provided. Cruel Fate pairs him with roommate Finny (Phineas), an easy-going boy who seems to have it all. He's athletic, handsome, confident, popular, and worst of all: nice. Secretly, Gene would love to hate him, if only he weren't so damn likable- which only compounds his jealousy with guilt. In a crucial scene, the two boys are swimming alone when Finny breaks the school's freestyle record. Gene is dying inside, knowing full-well he could never do that, but also feeling that if he somehow could, it would be the grandest achievement of his life. He dutifully bites back his envy and suggests getting some witnesses for a repeat performance, so Finny can claim the record officially. But Finny's not interested. He's satisfied knowing he did it, and isn't looking to show up any of his buddies on the swim team. That is beyond unexpected. It's too unfair; Finny's got the world by the tail, and it comes to him so easily. Gene hates his friend, and despises himself for feeling jealous. I can empathise. Who hasn't tasted jealousy, and then felt worse, recognizing the weakness and pettiness it reveals? Gene's a neurotic fifteen year old kid; how mature is he supposed to be?Not long after, still stinging from the swimming episode, Gene is drawn into a dare with Finny to dive off a tree that juts out over a lake. He's nervous as hell, but not willing to show it. As he and Finny are standing together high up on a limb, Gene shifts his weight, causing Finney to struggle with his balance. It is the first time Gene has ever seen him appear vulnerable, and he thrills at it. When he shifts his weight again (was it to maintain his balance? did a part of him do it intentionally? it happened so fast...) Finny falls, and is hurt badly.That's the moment: the nanosecond dividing line in Finny's life between carefree and fucked. The partition in Gene's development between an awkward kid who's going to do fine, and a self-lothing cynic who's doomed to dissect the same two seconds of his life ad infinitum. The story goes on; in fact there's a lot more, but for me it's all about that moment. Finny will never be an athlete again. His confidence and ease are gone. They may make reappearances, as time and circumstances allow, but he'll never be the innocent, indestructable, and (above all) trusting person he once was. The truth is, he was never the superhero Gene imagined him to be; he was pretty much an average kid who happened to have things a little more together than his roommate. And that's how he handles this tragedy- sometimes with the stoicism and good nature we might expect, but as often not. When World War II breaks out, Devon's students prepare themselves to be drafted immediately after graduation. The Finney of yesteryear would have been a natural leader, and he imagines the glory of battle he will miss out on, as he becomes marginalized from his peers. He copes, transparently, by joining a pacifist movement which advocates the United States making a seperate peace with Hitler. He also wrestles with some guilt, as he replays the accident in his head, and wonders what degree of responsibility Gene bears. He can't be sure, and neither can we. And neither can Gene. He will be forever plagued by those momentous slivers of time on the branch. When people tell him not to blame himself, or when he feels a prick of schadenfreude at Finny's diminished capacities, guilt corrodes him. When friends show sympathy towards Finny, there is jealousy again, and guilt. It is the final common pathway of every line of thought. A glimpse of Gene later in life hints that maturity and perhaps atonement will bring him to terms with what happened, but for me that's not the main point. The indelible lesson remains that some things, once broken, can never be made whole again. Sometimes a life of decades is irreversibly defined by the events of a few seconds. The back cover of this book calls this a "coming-of-age" novel, and I'm inclined to conditionally agree. I don't think it's a novel about shedding immature ways and learning the "right way to act". It's not even exactly about having character-defining experiences. I only think this is a coming-of-age novel in the sense that it underscores the delicacy of things. Much of childhood is about experimentation- pushing things to the limit. We engage in stupid physical feats, and sometimes get hurt. We test peoples' patience and sometimes get in trouble. We act a certain way and lose friends, or gain friends not worth having. For the most part, nature is kind, and gives children the elasticity to bounce back from all of these. One of the insights of adulthood is the realization that the playground we've been stomping around in is actually a china shop. All the splendor around us could be lost with stupifying ease, by simply making the wrong move at the wrong time. Carefree bounds become cautious navigation, and some people interpret this as a loss of joy - but it isn't. The joys of adulthood are found in a depth of appreciation for delicate and inpermanent things, which children don't have the capacity to fully understand yet. Whether it's knowing that time spent with people who won't be with us long is a gift, or feeling the accomplishment that a milestone anniversary represents, adulthood abounds with joys that are only open to those who understand the delicacy of things. Gene has a sense of this at the end of the novel, and that seems to insinuate the beginnings of his redemption. ____________________________If you'd like to hear me reading this review, go tomy Big Audio Project!