Academy X protagonist John Spencer endures a lot in his career as an English teacher at a prestigious New York City prep school. His female students seem to wear less every year. His male students are either thuggish jocks or hopeless geeks. His colleagues are sycophants, granola-crunchers, Irish drunks, or windbags. His friends are sexless and delusional. And Spencer himself is unbelievably inept, unable to figure out whether he's a character in a novel by Austen or Dickens or Chandler. He's a keen observer of the foibles of all those around him, but infuriatingly obtuse when it comes to navigating his own storyline.
Academy X author Andrew Trees, no doubt, has endured a lot in his career as an English teacher at a prestigious New York City prep school. But this attempt at satire—frothy yet nasty, like Cool Whip that fell in the dirt on the way to the table—feels like an extended cheap shot that misses its target. The ostensible plot, which doesn't get moving until halfway through the novel, involves a talented rich girl who needs a little extracurricular boost to get off Princeton's waitlist. Will Spencer compromise his principles on her behalf, or will she try to force the issue? Before Academy X takes a dive into fast-forward Perry Mason territory in its rushed denouement (complete with trials and surprise witnesses), it meanders through jaundiced, obscenely caricatured descriptions of students, faculty, college counselors, administration, and parents.
Trees' literary conceit is to fling a bewildering array of Great Books references at the reader and hope that a couple stick. Spencer is teaching Emma, so is he unwittingly tracing an Austen-esque arc? Or is his bizarrely omnipotent student Günter correct in using Marx, Dickens, and Voltaire to size up the situation? In the end, it hardly matters. Academy X is so mean-spirited that it's impossible to take its attempt at farce gleefully, and so conventionally plotted that novices to the academic-comedy genre will still be able to call all the shots. By the third time Trees has Spencer toss away an obvious clue or ignore an eager informant, the character has lost any chance at sympathy, and become just another plot device. Most high-schoolers, past and present, have suffered throughout their student careers. No need to drag it all back through some marginally entertaining muck in book form.