WAR IS HELL. But peace is worse; it has all of the violence of war with no prospect of a victory or even a surrender. In Peace Breaks Out, John Knowles returns to the Devon School, setting of his highly-acclaimed A Separate Peace, to explore the theme of restless destructiveness as the natural state of man. But Peace Breaks Out has neither the depth nor the freshness of Knowles' earlier novel. The "rolling fields" and "limitless blue sky" of the New Hampshire countryside seems telescoped into a two-dimensional backdrop, against which Knowles manipulates his characters like a puppeteer--not to create life, but merely to drive a lifeless moral home.
Peace Breaks Out is a study of a "lost generation"-- the young men who just missed World War II; who grew up in its shadow, paralyzed by youth, full of violence and rage, and suddenly lacking an enemy. Knowles protrays this generation as "riddled with guilt" and trapped by frustration. Having always assumed they would be called upon to fight, these young men discover a compulsion to fight. The Devon boys are determined to defeat a foe at all costs--to crate a foe if need be--and then to destroy him.
Knowles explores the same undercurrent of violence in A Separate Peace. In the earlier novel, he concentrates on the relationship of two friends: Gene, a lonely intellectual, painfully unsure of his own identity, and Phineas, a demi-god, full of love and humor, the embodiment of the separate peace. Although seemingly protected from the destruction of the war by Devon's ivy-covered walls, the two classmates create their own violence. Driven by jealously and insecurity. Gene transforms a friend into the enemy. He deliberately destroys Phineas, shattering the illusion of peace at Devon.
Like William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Knowles' novels argue that destruction is inherent in humanity and rooted in adolescence. Man is comfortable only in battel; thus he will create conflict in every aspect of his life. In Peace Breaks Out, however, the treatment of this idea is so heavy handed that the reader loses interest long before Knowle's unbelievable plot limps to a conclusion.
THE INTEREST of A Separate Peace lies in the subtle irony of friends trapped in hatred. In Peace Breaks Out, the protagonists are bitter foes from the outset. Hochschwender, the loud, obnoxious neo-Nazi, and Wexford, the pathologically evil, power-obsessed editor of the school newspaper, emerge from the first meeting of their American History class determined to destroy each other. The reader can identify with neither character, and their rivalry quickly becomes trivial and boring.
The boys' American History teacher, Pete Hallam, presides over the conflict, commenting periodically on its progress. A wise but bitter former POW. Hallam tries to recapture the innocence he knew at Devon as a student but finds the same violence he thought he had escaped. Instead of adding depth to the Hochschwender Wexford confrontation, his observations reduce the action to a series of cliches. Reflecting on "that monster war," Hallam sees it "sending last thin even here to this still reverberating around the world even here to this little rural corner."
In place of subtlety and effective characterization, Knowles substitutes irrelevant plot contrivances. Inconclusive innuendos concerning Wexford's latent homosexuality are included, as are sporadic references to Hallam's ex-wife, the reason for the breakup and their eventual reconcilliation.
Knowles ends the story with the trite implication that the Hitlers of tomorrow are the school boys of today. Watching Wexford calmly graduate from Devon after effectively disrupting the last remnants of its peace. Hallam muses, "He's an incipient monster, and I can't stop him. For the last dozen years we've seen in the world how monsters can come to the top and just what horrors they can achieve. And these monsters were once adolescents."
Instead of forcing the reader to consider the implications of evil, Knowles succeeds only in oversimplifying it as an ubiquitous force. Evil is inescapable, but the author shirks his responsibility to explain why it emerges periodically in a deranged youngster or a mass murderer.