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Higher education is both a bastion of comfort for the initiated, and a source of mystery for those left outside looking in. Similarly contradictory is its claim of welcoming open minds, while demanding total conformity. As a new college year begins, here are two selections that offer very different approaches to cracking the code of the ivory-towered set, while both remaining entertaining in their own rights.

Lucky Jim
by Kingsley Amis
Random House, 1992
ISBN: 0-14-018630-1
$11.95, 251 pp

Shortly after World War II, England was swept by a literary movement that meant to turn polite society on its head. Though similar to what was going on in America with the Beat Generation, England's movement lacked the devil-may-care balls out irreverence of the Yanks'. Decidedly British in style and appeal, it could be regarded as a timid rendition of the movement being propelled on the other side of the pond by Kerouac et al; Beat Generation lite, if you will. Dubbed "The Angry Young Men," the British movement was born of novels with a common theme: young men with rebellious natures.

A first of its kind, Lucky Jim takes place at a provincial college outside London. The story's protagonist, Jim Dixon, is a junior faculty member looking to advance his career while putting in as little effort as possible. In modern terms, he is a slacker. His personal life is complicated - complications of his own making - by a love triangle. The girl he wants has a fella, and the girl who wants him, and whom he has a misguided sense of loyalty towards, is a cold fish. His professional life mirrors his personal triangulation, ever playing the necessary politics to appease his superiors, all the while taking them for fools. It's a glimpse inside the machinations of secondary British education - a good ol' boys club - that puts protocol and conformity ahead of all else. It's a world we sense early in the novel, Dixon is ill-equipped for.

Amis' writing lacks the elegance associated with British writers of a generation prior. He is concise, though, writing with a style that's to the point and often comical. As the novel proceeds, Dixon's rebelliousness becomes increasingly daring to the point it can no longer be ignored by the stiff upper lips who surround him. The more daring he becomes, the more laughable the stereotype of the proper British gentleman (of which there is no shortage) becomes, until he learns first-hand how insubordination is dealt with by polite society.

In the end, Lucky Jim is a story about pushing boundaries, and the consequences of pushing them too hard. In the vein of the Beat Generation, there are no regrets on the part of Amis' protagonist, no apologies or sentimental reflection. Just that what's done is done, life goes on, and a sense that even as unlikeable a character as Dixon is - or perhaps precisely because of it - he'll escape, angry, but unscathed.

The Official Preppy Handbook
edited by Lisa Birnbach
Workman Publishing, 1980
ISBN: 0-89480-140-6
$4.95, 224 pp

When Lisa Birnbach came out with The Official Preppy Handbook in 1980, it took the publishing world by storm. Not only was she writing for a seemingly small niche, it was a closed niche that the general public had no invitation to join, much less interest to. Thirty-eight weeks at the top of The New York Times bestseller list, however, proved those assumptions wrong.

Recipe for Success
The Handbook was gifted to me as a birthday present. At the time, this seemed appropriate as I was nineteen and an interest in higher education had recently been awakened in me. I viewed The Handbook as my ticket to success; finding the right college where I'd be rubbling elbows with the right people. I was stupid and naive, but that was of no matter. Birnbach's book promised to set anyone interested on a course of schmoozing and boozing (alcohol's a big theme in the world of preps) with the upper-crust, regardless of brains. She was democratizing upward mobility! I dissected Birnbach's words as a chef might an unfamiliar recipe, committing some of her instructions to memory with a fool's expectations.

      Amis' writing lacks the elegance associated with British writers of a generation prior. He is concise, though, writing with a style that's to the point and often comical.

Though Birnbach's purpose was lost on me, the humor of her book was not. It made perfect sense to my young self that a serious instruction manual on how to join the ranks of the American aristocracy would be light and jovial, because their lives were light and jovial. Of course they'd have cute names for one another (Muffy, Missy, Buffy and Bitsy; Skip, Chip, Kip and Trip) and a lingo all their own (adding "ster" to the end of a word - i.e. "prepster" - the author claims, was theirs). Comparing their world of privilege to my own was like comparing Oz to Kansas. I was star-struck by a class of society I had as much chance of joining as I did of being carried off by flying monkeys.

I should have clued in to it sooner. While The Handbook lists colleges that are a must for preppies, it's not a guide for selecting a school. (It also contains listings of the "right" K-12 prep schools, and the famous preppies who attended them, but that doesn't make it any more of a guide for school selection than a Chilton's auto repair manual is for selecting a car). It's all good information - and in Birnbach's hands, hella entertaining - but it's hardly an aid for college selection, and isn't meant to be. What it is, is a highly entertaining look at the preppy phenomenon that had heretofore been out of sight and mind of most Americans.

Hard Truth
While joining the preppy ranks seemed a worthy goal in the 1980s, it was not an avenue seriously open to me. Unless your ancestors had passage on the Mayflower, it's likely not open to you either. In her promise of inclusion, Birnbach fails. She can provide all the tools in the world (save for family name and old money), and the most we can hope for is a wannabe version of the preppy. No amount of Sperry Top-siders or Lacoste shirts in pink and lime-green are going to buy a seat at the table. The very premise - even in America - of standing eye to eye with the decendents of industry is flawed. So much for democratizing privilege.

Re-reading The Handbook as an adult, I find it even more entertaining than that first read-through. Years do that. Now that I'm older, I've also got a new appreciation for Birnbach's ability - while keeping it light - to peel back the layers of prep for an honest reveal of its core. From where to be seen, to what clothes to wear - even how one speaks - prep is all about conforming. Individual expression has no place in prep, unless it conforms to pre-determined norms. For instance, a preppy can wear offbeat, loud clothing, but only one item of offbeat loud clothing, preferably the pants. There is perhaps not a single other group in America that conformity is so demanded of. And conform they do.

Birnbach describes to a tee preppy families I have known over the years, right down to their shopping habits. The friend who gave me this book so many years ago, I always thought to be frugal. She preferred mending a 20-year old sweater from L.L. Bean over replacing it. That wasn't frugality; that was preppiness, pure and simple. Even her furniture - and that of her mother's - conformed to preppy standards. So, while The Handbook is a fun and hilarious read, it's peppered throughout with truth enough to appeal even to whom it exploits: preppies. It's that kind of truthfulness that lands a book like The Official Preppy Handbook atop The New York Times bestseller list. It's Birnbach's entertaining tongue-in-cheek delivery that keeps it there for nine months.

posted 10/28/22