Tom Dolby Gives Good Fiction

Tom Dolby Comes Of Age

“I was very much an outsider when I was at boarding school,” says author Tom Dolby. “I was almost completely clueless and a little bit naive about the manners of living on the east coast.”

Now a handsome 33-year old, California-native Dolby spent his final three years of high school at Connecticut’s The Hotchkiss School, admittedly an influence for his second novel, The Sixth Form.

The book actually began percolating during Dolby’s tenure at Hotchkiss, albeit in a very different form: “After I graduated, I started working on a boarding school novel with similar characters and similar themes, but it never quite gelled in the way that I wanted. I just didn’t have enough background and training as a writer to really pull it all together.” Throw in a grade A education at Yale University and an impressive debut, The Trouble Boy, and Dolby had the artillery for teenage trials.

The Sixth Form‘s current incarnation took about five and a half years to complete. And it’s well worth the wait. As you may have gathered, the action unfolds at an upper crust prep school: Berkley Academy, where Californian Ethan Whitley decides to spend his senior year. Ill at ease with his new surroundings and inherently awkward, poor Ethan struggles to find social equilibrium until befriended by the popular, athletic Todd Eldon.

Self-assured, seductive witty and rich, Eldon embodies the teenage ideal – he’s masculine. Or Ethan perceives him to be, as Dolby no doubt would have: “My view of masculinity was very much based on the other kids… It was kids like Todd: kids who were very comfortable in their own bodies.” It’s not long until we learn Todd’s just as uncomfortable as Ethan.

The boys’ lives take a dark turn after falling in with a free-spirited – and troubled – teacher, Hannah McClellan. The trio soon embark on a hormone-fueld journey of sexual exploration, betrayal and, ultimately, personal enlightenment. It should come as no surprise to hear that the book’s cover flap describes The Sixth Form as “a sensitive coming of age tale and a compelling work of suspense”. Both clauses happen to be true, but the first can come across as cliche. Says Dolby in his steady, confident tenor, “It’s just a label that publishers like to attach to a certain kind of novel in which there are young people and there’s an arc of starting confused and bewildered about their place in the world and they gain a great sense of where they belong.”

A coming of age, I point out, doesn’t necessarily have to come in one’s teens. People are constantly realigning themselves in the ever-changing social landscape. Dolby agrees: “I think “coming of age” is essentially the midlife crisis that you have in your teens or twenties”. Despite his healthy skepticism, Dolby embraces the seemingly predictable tag: “‘Coming of age’ is a good phrase because it describes what both Ethan and Todd go through. I realized through the writing of it that coming into your sexuality is not exclusive to being gay.”

Ethan and Todd are incapable of sexual understanding, nor are they emotionally equipped to express their confusion: another symptom of – and prescription for – the male species. “Being emotional or talking about your feelings was never really something that I thought of as particularly masculine,” explains Dolby. “I think I often felt like an outsider, because I was very much into talking about my feelings.”

Not all of The Sixth Form‘s male characters are so tortured. Take, for example, the school’s resident homo: Jeremy Cohen. Out and proud Cohen’s completely at ease with himself – and almost entirely ostractized. I can’t help but wonder whether Dolby’s adolescent ideas informed Cohen.

“Being gay was portrayed in pretty much one way,” Dolby tells me in his sonorous rhythm. “It was always the nonathletic kid, not popular, really artsy, really bookish, got beat up on. It’s kids like Jeremy Cohen who are out and doing there thing, and it’s not exactly encouraging.” The Western world’s changed considerably since Dolby’s coming of age, a cultural evolution of which Dolby’s well aware – and grateful: “I think it’s great because kids are coming out earlier and earlier, so there are more of them, so there’s probably a bigger diversity of role models and mentors.” Dolby’s certainly one to admire.

For those of you who are wondering, yes, Dolby eventually found his niche at Hotchkiss: “I adapted pretty quickly. The exciting thing is that when you get home you are exotic to the other kids: you’re this guy who went to school in Connecticut, which is foreign.” Dolby’s next novel also takes place in front of the familiar youthful backdrop, but with a far different slant: adventure! He’s also working on a heftier project: “It’s a novel about family: something I’ve danced around in these last two books. There are always these satellite relationships with different families, but they’re not the heart of the story.” And heart is definitely something Dolby’s novels have in spades.

The Sixth Form is out now from Kensington Press.

Dolby image by Brian Orter.