The Starboard Sea: A Novel, by Amber Dermont. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2012. 308 pages. Available at Sacred Heart University in the Popular Reading section.
This novel is a worthy, beautifully-written successor in the genre of John Knowles' classic A Separate Peace (1959).
Jason Kilian Prosper becomes a student at a second-chance Bellingham Academy, an elite, old-boy prep school on the Massachusetts north shore. His life-long best friend room-mate, and sailing partner Cal committed suicide the previous Spring. Jason feels responsible for Cal's death, and by taking responsibility for his own destructive behavior, he grows up.
Soon after his arrival at "second chance and third rate" Bellingham, Jason meets Aidan, a girl as wounded in her way as Jason is in his. Their relationship grows as Jason copes with his parents' impending divorce, his brother's shady deals, and the young male heedless recklessness of several of his so-called friends at Bellingham. Aidan dies during a hurricane and coming to terms with this double death and grief further distinguishes Jason from "the company," his arrogant peers.
In many ways this very dark portrait of the wanton behavior of the children of the very rich could have been simply repellant. Set against the backdrop of the Stock Market crash of October 19, 1987 (and a nearly simultaneous fictional hurricane reminiscent of Hurricane Bob, August 19, 1991), these children of the 1% will forever escape real accountability for their cover-ups and lies. Like Nick Carraway's "careless people . . . they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness . . . and let other peole clean up the mess they had made." (The Great Gatsby, p. 179) These characters would now be 43 years old, and judging from the audacious selfishness that characterizes the New Gilded Age, they evade any real accountability still.
The young people are not the only ones to lie and cover up, however. Equally culpable are the Headmaster, the Dean, Jason's father, and numerous other adults. Jason's mother, the retiring history teacher Mr. Guy, and Cal's mother are among the few sympathetic adults with a living moral center.
What holds the reader is Jason's voice --smart alecky, generous, and uncommonly intelligent. Jason is at once Holden Caulfield, Huck Finn, Nick Carraway, and Joshua Slocum. He has a gift for befriending outsiders --Aidan, a townie clean-up boy called Plague (really, Leo), a 23-year-old sailing coach, and Chester, the lone African-American at Bellingham. Jason loves to sail competetively, and his deep knowledge of water, wind, and competitive sailing craft is his touch-point, his body-memory, and grounds his quest to learn celestial navigation. Race, his new, equally morally culpable sailing partner (a jarring successor to Cal) names the starboard sea, which "means the right sea, the true sea, or like finding the best path in life. It's deep." (p. 274) In the end, Jason wants to swim "until the dark water and navy sky were one." "I flipped over, floating on my back and leaning into the starboard sea. The night descending, stretching above me like a map promising instruction, direction. I would spend the rest of my life searching for guiding stars."
That conclusion is part of some of the most beautiful closing pages of a novel that I have read since I first read Fitzgerald's evocation of the "green light at the end of Daisy's dock." That is high praise, but I really believe Dermont's writing will endure the test of time. She spends her literary allusions carefully -- among them Melville, Coleridge, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, and Samuel R. Delaney's The Motion of Light in Water. Dermont never clutters the page, and never muffles Jason's voice. With uncanny accuracy, she conjures an adolescent boy's varying sexual desires, roaring physicality, and keen yearning for kindness.
I picked up this book by accident --it had been mis-shelved in the Library-- and couldn't put it down. Though it's not for everyone, I can't recommend it highly enough.