The book is narrated by a school senior ("sixth former" in prep-school vernacular) at an (unnamed) elite boarding school in the northeastern United States in 1960-61. It is possible to infer Pennsylvania's The Hill School, which Wolff attended, at least partially inspired the setting for the novel. Further evidence of this can also be inferred from the fact that Hill's dining hall is the photograph depicted on the novel's cover. The narrator aspires to be a writer, and the school he attends is an embodiment of a certain kind of academic fantasy, where non-English teachers (teachers are "masters" here) "floated at the fringe of [the English masters'] circle, as if warming themselves at a fire", and literature is still believed to hold the key to the soul. Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway, with each of whom the narrator crosses paths, appear in the story, dispensing wisdom, pseudo-wisdom, vitriol. These literary appearances amount to creative satires of these authors, especially Ayn Rand.
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