The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

470 DingyII

What I wanted from this book was clear: a school story like Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, with junior sailing instead of competitive cheerleading, but the same intense concentration on fierce competition, bitter rivalry, high-octane jealous relationships, no-holds-barred tragic readiness to throw fate to the winds, young love, betrayal & death. In other words, a typical school term, but tweaked just a bit tighter. Tho’ I found it a great disappointment, The Starboard Sea had all of these proper ingredients. Unfortunately Amber Dermont failed to combine them well & some of them had gone more than a bit off.

The School

If you went to a decent school, you’ll remember the list we kept of where ex-classmates too thick, too crazy, or too criminal to be invited to rejoin us @ the end of term would probably go next. Bellingham could go to the top. A character in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline & Fall remarks, “We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School, & School. Frankly, School is pretty bad.” Bellingham is definitely “pretty bad.” Apparently the ISEE test score required for admission is a parent’s signature on a tuition check that’ll be honored by the bank, so it says a lot about how badly Jason managed to screw up @ his previous establishment that his father has to build Bellingham a new dormitory to get them to take him. The trouble with a really bad school (whether an inner-city public school with drug dealers in the corridors & bullies beating the shit out of you for your lunch money or a posh prep school with drug dealers in the dormitories & bullies beating the shit out of you for the sheer fun of it) is that they are comic in satiric fiction, tho in realistic fiction they’re tragic, which sometimes leaves the reader @ a loss whether to respond with laughter or tears. (I had that problem too with Anthony Breznican’s Brutal Youth.) Some of the satiric touches here went quite OTT for me. Bellingham is co-ed, unlike Jason’s previous school, & @ arriving on campus with his father, the dean tells Jason: “enjoy yourself. Our girls are grade-A fresh.” I can imagine a schoolmaster thinking like that – though he ought to be barred for life from working in education – but hardly actually saying it. (In fact, I cannot imagine the madam @ the better class of whorehouse saying it either!) Bellingham has a chapel but no carillon. “We marched into the building, bells echoing from a loudspeaker attached to a telephone pole.” If that didn’t make it obvious enough that this school’s a spiritual toxic waste dump, we discover that the icons “weren’t religious scenes or saints but generals and monarchs.” These include some rather anomalous characters: “Alexander the great, Julius Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, Attila the Hun.” Marcus Aurelius next to Attila the Hun? You’ve got to be kidding! Just how heavy-handed does the symbolism have to get? Spirituality is clearly not one of the cornerstone values @ Bellingham. The school is rife with bullies, with serious & criminal mayhem with a tragic outcome that the headmaster helps cover up – successfully. The good characters, Aiden, Chester, & even Jason, deserved a chance @ a better formation.

The Sailing

In the world of yacht racing, dinghy sailors are the sprinters – ocean racers the cross-country runners. If dinghy sailing is new to you, go to fireballsailing.org.uk & watch their video. Those boats are Fireball dinghies, which are what Bellingham School sails. The person sitting aft @ the helm is the skipper & the crew is forward, hanging on a wire off the boat with only feet touching the rail out on a contraption called a “trapeze”; that’s the “wireman.” In the photo above, which shows the skipper & crew of 470 (similar to a Fireball) unbending the sails after bringing the boat ashore, the figure in black wetsuit is the wireman & the girl wearing the white lifevest is the skipper.  The skipper steers the boat & makes the tactical decisions, when to head for the start line & when to go about & jibe, as well as handling the mainsheet. The crew controls the jib & spinnaker sheets, sets & retrieves the spinnaker, & whenever the boat comes about has to swing into the cockpit, unhook from the wire, hook up & swing out on the new windward side, while trimming the jib on the new tack. It requires tremendous athleticism. Just as being an equestrienne uses the skills of a cavalry officer in Wellington’s day, I’d reckon a good wireman would have made an excellent foretop-man on a square rigger. I’m rather elaborating a lot about dinghy sailing for a book review, but to get a take on The Starboard Sea you have to know more about dinghy sailing than Amber Dermont bothers to tell you. (In contrast with Dare Me, where Megan Abbott gives the reader a real taste of competitive cheer, or the equestrian detail of Anton DiSclafani’s Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.) The critical championship race for the Tender Trophy is summarized in a couple of perfunctory sentences; we hear nothing about the strategy, tactics, or what the other boats are doing, either the competition or the teammates, tho’ interscholastic sailing is usually a team sport. Instead of learning about dinghy racing, we get a lot of nautical padding. Jason loves to expiate on celestial navigation, whaling history (which he gets wrong, imagining that the harpooner was supposed to kill the whale on the first strike & that going aloft you’d “claw the ratlines” – you’d better grasp the shrouds instead), correcting compass deviation & circumnavigating the globe, none of which has any relevance to dinghy racing. I’ve never encountered any real sailor who thinks or talks at all like him. The atmosphere of this book is like one of those seafood restaurants with Captain’s chairs @ the tables & fake anchors, running lights, lobster buoys & knot boards on the walls.

The high-octane jealous relationships, no-holds-barred tragic readiness to throw fate to the winds, young love, betrayal & death, &c: that is to say, The Good Stuff

Like Addy in Dare Me, the Starboard Sea features a 1st person narrator, Jason Prosper. It’s not clear how symbolic his name: Jason is an excellent name for a good sailor if you’ve read the Argonautica & equally appropriate for a prime sleazeball if you’ve read the Medea. I doubt his parents ever heard of either & altho’ dad is supposed to be old money and a Princeton alumnus, he drives a Cadillac & keeps a mistress @ the St. Regis. Jason is carrying a lot of baggage. After his BF & roommate Cal committed suicide, Jason managed to get himself expelled from his previous school. Only @ the very end of the book do we find out why Cal hanged himself (would he really have used “eight stranded nylon rope”? nylon stretches), tho’ we get lots of hints throughout that Jason feels responsible. (view spoiler) With a 1st person narrator there’s often a problem with disclosure, but here I felt it would have been a much better book is we had known from the start what albatross Jason is carrying round his neck. (Couldn’t resist an allusion.) That would have accounted for his passivity & diffidence in entering into relationships, something that I found puzzling throughout this book – Jason’s like a Raymond Carver or Ann Beattie character tho’ his ultimate progenitor’s probably J. D. Salinger. The only attractive character is Aidan – a girl despite being named for a male Anglo-Saxon saint – who is indeed a kind of castaway, & who @ the end proves to be much braver & loving than Jason could ever deserve. Had I been writing this book, I would have made her a junior sailor herself & Jason her wireman & I also would not have kept the story going on for so long after writing her out of it, as she is the only interesting & energetic character in the book. (I loved her backstory about her lesbian affair @ her previous school with Hannah her art teacher – teacher’s husband forced Hannah to end the relationship & Aidan got expelled for smashing all Hannah’s stained glass.). Unfortunately, Amber Dermont has knocked herself out to make Aidan not only a character but a “character” – she thinks Robert Mitchum is her real father (personally I’ve never found him attractive) & has a collection of Fred Astaire’s dancing shoes. But I did love her & from the very 1st moment Jason spots her standing out on the water, we sense there’s dark cloud round her brows – this girl’s beautiful & she’s doomed.

My Take

I really wanted to like this book but reading it was a long & tedious slog. Some of the faults are obvious & could have been corrected with better editing: the bad school is too much a caricature, perhaps intended for readers eaten alive by class envy (like the author of the blurb), the dinghy sailing should have been intense, vividly & accurately depicted (just what was that ”bundle of knotted rope” – a phrase no sailor would ever use – “hanging off the boom” of the Fireball that entangled Race’s neck?) Jason’s forced nautical allusions (gazing into Aidan’s eyes he says, “I capsized into them” – that I am still trying to imagine) should have been excised along with the whaling museum. I’d not have allowed Aiden to disappear from the book so soon. But I fear the principal problem is that the author was trying too hard to write “literary fiction” so instead of a brave & energetic central character such as we have with Beth Cassidy or Thea Atwell, we get in Jason a passive ditherer mixing Ishmael with Holden Caulfield. Amber Dermont did well to create Aiden; she ought to have made her the hero.

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