You’d have to be a pretty brave author to bring yet another prep school novel into the world. Stories of class conflict and teenage angst set against the leafy backdrop of ivy-covered lecture halls and manicured quads are one of the staples --- some might say clichés --- of modern literature. From classics like A SEPARATE PEACE and A GOOD SCHOOL to contemporary works like Paul Murray’s SKIPPY DIES, the prep school milieu has produced some wonderful novels. But you would think that, by now, this type of story has become the literary equivalent of a closet full of cardigans. They’re comfortable, but how many do you need?
Ron Irwin earns points for bravery and then for having the courage to write FLAT WATER TUESDAY. The good news is that, while Irwin’s novel may not top the best of its genre, it is still an entertaining and well-written tale of past-their-prime teachers living vicariously through their students, and of privileged young men and women struggling to live up to their parents’ expectations.
At the beginning of the novel, Rob Carrey, a National Geographic filmmaker in his mid-30s, receives an unexpected letter from John Perry, a fellow member of the rowing team during their senior year at Connecticut’s prestigious Fenton School. John is in rehab and recently divorced. A therapist has encouraged him to write a letter to everyone he may have wronged. This, the therapist says, will help John obtain closure for episodes that may be the cause of his problems. Without naming it, John refers to an incident at Fenton that had a profound effect on him, and that he is sure has had an effect on Carrey as well. He refers to their upcoming 15th reunion and wonders if Rob plans to attend.
"...an entertaining and well-written tale of past-their-prime teachers living vicariously through their students, and of privileged young men and women struggling to live up to their parents’ expectations.... FLAT WATER TUESDAY is a worthy addition to the prep-school genre."
Rob reads the letter as he flies to New York from his residence in Cape Town, South Africa, where he has recently shot footage about the endangered black marlin. He is returning to the loft he shares with his girlfriend, Carolyn Smythe, a videographer who edits his footage. His return is bittersweet: Rob and Carolyn have had their difficulties, mostly notably when she was pregnant with their child, and they have reached a point where they feel that they should break up.
It is in this context that Rob recalls his year at Fenton. Rob attended public schools in Niccalsetti, New York, until Fenton recruited him for his senior year. They wanted him for his rowing prowess. Every year, the school fielded a crew team called the God Four, composed of four rowers and a coxswain. Throughout its history, the God Four teams had had many victories, but before Rob’s arrival, they had lost the annual race against rival Warwick for five consecutive years. Rob was recruited to end this losing streak.
Much of the novel is devoted to the team’s preparations for the Warwick race, held every spring on a Tuesday afternoon. We meet Charles Channing, the 60ish coach who was rumored to have left the legal profession under less than honorable circumstances. There’s fellow senior Connor Payne, the son of millionaires who are so embarrassed by the God Four’s failures that they don’t get out of the car when they come to witness their son’s races. And Ruth Anderson is the coxswain with whom Rob is smitten.
Much of FLAT WATER TUESDAY is familiar stuff. Rob resents Connor’s privileged life and Brooks Brothers attire, yet he also seeks his approbation and fixates on him so completely that almost every encounter becomes a contest of wills. Many scenes depict the team’s rigorous seven-month training regimen, complete with shouted encouragement and copious sweating. The writing is clichéd at times --- Rob and his teammates are at one point hung over as all hell --- and you’ll likely figure out the victim of the incident referred to at the beginning well before misfortune strikes.
But Irwin’s gift for pacing and his affection for his characters make the novel an enjoyable read. The man knows his rowing: the book is filled with descriptions of ergometer tests and rowing simulations. Little details enliven the novel, such as when we learn that muscles can fill with lactic acid and feel as if they are burning if a rower performs a bench pull test too quickly. FLAT WATER TUESDAY is a worthy addition to the prep-school genre. What do you know? The closet had room for another cardigan after all.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on June 14, 2013
Flat Water Tuesday