"The optimism, the sense of possibility and hope comes at the end of August." With Alexander Maksik's help, his impeccable timing and his cinematic eye, you can almost conjure it—the first chill, the end of summer, what it was like to love a class, to believe in a teacher, to look forward to school with keen anticipation, not dread. Perhaps you were fortunate enough to take an English Literature class like the one Will Silver teaches sophomores and seniors at the ISF High School in Paris. Reading the great books, you might have discussed the existence of God, being and nothingness, action vs. reflection, how to be true to yourself (whatever that meant.)
Will Silver's students want to be like him: self-contained, stylish, honest and unafraid. When he tells them to live the literary life; to read Sartre in cafés as the long afternoon light disappears; to carry notebooks, observe, and be engaged, they do it. His students are privileged, well-travelled kids from sophisticated families. Most of them speak several languages. Some of them have seen violence and experienced personal grief.
The story of You Deserve Nothing is so familiar by now that it’s operatic: truly passionate teacher crosses a line (or is seduced over a line—it barely matters). In the classroom crucible, bonds form, things are said, bureaucratic policies broken, morals questioned, boundaries violated. Will Silver is an undeniably good man, but he is only thirty-three, and there are unanswered questions and deep holes he has yet to face in his own life.
Marie, a junior, cannot live up to her impeccable Parisian mother's expectations. She has neither the desire nor the lassitude to follow her slutty friend Ariel to bar after bar; liason after empty liason. She falls in love with Will Silver and offers herself to him. Gilad, whose father routinely beats his mother, is a loner. Clearly in need of a father figure he can respect, Gilad looks up to Will Silver and craves his approval. Colin, the angry Irish student, needs someone to teach him how to channel his righteous anger. The expectations placed on this excellent teacher are enormous.
Above all, Maksik is a virtuoso of cadence. These students, their teacher, the classroom, the painfully lovely city in which they live overflow with passion, anger and potential. A reader experiences the crescendos, the swells of emotion in much the same way that we feel storms coming—low and high pressure, gusts of heat and cold, heightened sound, a strong awareness of light. Maksik honors our breaking points; when a stranger is pushed from a train platform and killed by the oncoming train; when Will succumbs to Marie, when anti-semitic thugs bring violence to a demonstration against the war in Iraq, when Gilad’s father hits his mother, we just want to crawl back inside the books, drag ourselves back to Will's classroom, where it’s safe to have dreams and ideas.
Reading Sartre, Will tries to give his students courage to live in a godless universe, but he is only human. With writing that is reminiscent of James Salter's in its sensuality, Francine Prose's capacious inquiry into difficult moral questions and Martin Amis's loose-limbed evocation of the perils of youth, Maksik brings us back to that point in all our lives when character is molten, integrity elusive and beauty unbearably thrilling.
Susan Salter Reynolds reviews books for The Barnes & Noble Review.