This time of year, as school wraps up, is always one of reflection for me. I find myself thinking about my last year of high school and of college. I confess that I am not one of those people who keeps in touch with her kindergarten best friend or who has a large legion of friends from grade school, high school or college with whom I am still in touch, and I don’t spend weekends having reunions with a mass of people from my past. I instead seem to move on and make new friends while weaving some older ones into the fabric of my life. But I love reading about stories of people who bonded when they were in school --- over a sport, a cause, or just for being in the same place at a certain time.
In FLAT WATER TUESDAY, a brilliant debut novel by Ron Irwin, Rob Carrey finds himself recruited from his working-class town to accept a scholarship to row crew on the team of Fenton, the prestigious boarding school. The “God Four” are the team members who are the elite; they row the annual Tuesday afternoon race with their rival, Warwick, along with their coxswain, Ruth. I knew a bit about the crew from my years at Fordham as I had friends on the team and knew one of the coxswains. They were the people who rose early and made their way to the Harlem River to row, where one needed all kinds of shots lest you end up in the water, which was neither pristine nor clean.
At Fenton the water is a lot cleaner, but the rigor of the workouts that create an elite crew athlete are beyond what I knew and tough. Off-season training in tanks leads to rivalries and alliances of who will make the God Four, with eliminations that charge the tenor and tone of the team. I kept thinking these were teens who still were going through their own emotional and physical growing pains, including hormonal ones with this grueling challenge layered in.
Competition is brisk. Tempers are high. The race is the goal, but what happens when what ends moves the story to a new level. What becomes of the people whose lives have been funneled to a common goal and have now found it met? Reading it, I felt the adrenalin build and braced myself for the inevitable twist that would follow it and fracture so many lives. What happens haunts the God Four and those who knew them, including their coach and the administration who put such stock in what they did. The way Irwin has crafted his story, layering Rob’s life now and in flashbacks, give it its strength.
The story arc is driven by the group gathering for a funeral at their reunion. And in getting together for this, Rob and Ruth’s lives get some closure and perspective, which perhaps frees them to move on, albeit tentatively. Part of them has been trapped in what happened during those training and racing days --- and what happened to them in the days that followed. It’s about a team. It’s about coming of age. It will make you think about life and the twists and turns it takes. And what it is like to go back to a school and see a cup or a trophy in a case. For many of us, it was just a win for the team. For others, it carries a lot of life-changing stories.