Good Times/Bad Times
I remember being tremendously moved by this novel, so much that I looked for more works by James Kirkwood and acquired and read them. The story is told in the form of a letter from Peter Kilburn who is in jail for the murder of his school headmaster. This, however, is not a typical tale of murder and I found it unique in its deep melancholy and sadness of the memory shared in its pages. In this aspect it is very different than Kirkwood's lighter, more humorous work. Good Times / Bad Times presents two young men at a New England prep school who are threatened when the disturbed headmaster develops a homoerotic fixation on Peter. His friend Jordan is the novel's voice of wisdom; he tells Peter that what makes the headmaster's attraction so dangerous is the fact that he cannot acknowledge it.
The story is one of friendship that only can be experienced by youth of a certain age, but even that aspect is unique in this telling and that with all the unsureness of young men coming of age, still acting and thinking like boys, makes it more compelling. The novel is suffused with homoeroticism, but homosexuality is nervously (and unconvincingly) disavowed by the narrator, who says at one point, "We threw our arms around one another and we kissed. It was a real kiss, and no matter what anybody might think, a perfectly right and fitting expression of our friendship for that time and place and for us."
The questions of perception and distance between the boys and the headmaster also weigh heavily in the story which is not without lighter moments. However, the tension that pervades the work and the seriousness of the feelings that are not always capable of being expressed overcome these lighter moments. Ultimately it is the adept handling of themes of friendship in a school setting and coming-of-age that stay with your memory and made this book special for me.
Good Time/ Bad Times by James Kirkwood. Simon & Schuster, 1968