Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

Title: The Starboard sea
Author: Amber Dermont
Genre: recent historical
Length: 310 pages
Rating: 4.75 stars out of 5

Set against the backdrop of the 1987 stock market collapse, The Starboard Sea is an examination of the abuses of class privilege, the mutability of sexual desire, the thrill and risk of competitive sailing and the adult cost of teenage recklessness. It is a powerful and compelling novel about a young man navigating the depths of his emotional life, finding his moral center, trying to forgive himself, and accepting the gift of love.


The Starboard Sea is an inside peek into the world and lives of the preppies of the late 80s, that highly bred, over-privileged group that the rest of us either aspired to be or loathed. This is a coming of age novel with some very striking characteristics.

Jason Prosper, child of wealth, has been expelled from his male-only prep school after the death of his best friend, roommate, and sailing partner, for reasons that only he knows are connected. Cal, who committed suicide, was more than Jason’s friend with benefits, but less than his lover, though that may not have been how Cal saw it. Jason, ridden with guilt over Cal’s death for reasons that are only gradually explained, has enrolled at Bellingham, boarding school of the wealthy fuck-ups.

Cal, though we never see him in real time, hangs over the entire book, whether Jason is recalling an adventure, considering what Cal would have made of some current situation, or trying to come to terms with his role in his friend’s death. The school is almost entirely male, though a few of the girls are very much part of the action, particularly Aidan, whose friendship feels like a second chance for Jason in many ways.

Everyone here has some mark against them, which is freeing, for expectations once shattered are only rebuilt to low standards. “Just get them to graduate without making national headlines” seems to be the school’s philosophy, and the students are accustomed to getting away with murder. They torment one another, haze each other, bully one another, and grow up to screw over the world economies because they are primed to positions of the power that comes with wealth. Trouble is something they buy their way out of, even if the cost is as great as a new dormitory building for the school. Laws are for other people.

Jason sails the two-man boats in races that could reasonably lead to Olympic competition, but drops off the sailing team after a freak accident that nearly kills his crewman. Sailing was a passion shared with Cal—not being on the water is a kind of expiation for his part in Cal’s death, and only as he gradually reveals and comes to terms with it can he allow himself the joy that comes with reading the wind and waves.

Being part of one tragedy and nearly a second grows Jason up in a hurry: we listen in on his growth processes as well as the life of the school, which has ugly undercurrents from many sources. He manages to mature a great deal in the year he spends at Bellingham, going from an extremely self-centered brat who nonetheless yearns for some real affection from his father, to the driving force behind what passes for real justice in these quarters after a student dies. Chester, one of the few black students here, teaches Jason a huge amount about friendship and justice—he’s one of the few truly good people here, struggling to survive in a wealthy cesspit, and doing it with style and grace.

One of the wonders of this story is that while a gay relationship is absolutely pivotal to the plot, it’s not overloaded with angst. Jason’s issues with Cal were over justice, not their relationship, exactly, though the two were intertwined. Jason seems to be bi rather than gay, having attractions to a few girls and wondering about starting something with another young man, There are a few kisses but no onscreen sex with anyone except Cal, which is all flashback, and even that is brief and heavily couched in misty language.

My few issues with the story centered on the language: while the author certainly knows her way around a sentence, there are so many fragments that it became intrusive and somewhat stilted because of some unnatural divisions. This was probably intended for characterization of Jason’s fragmented thoughts, but overdone in this first person narration. A minor disconnect in logic in the resolution of the student’s death also bothered me, but overall, this was some fine story telling.

This is a story of growing up, of doing terrible things, understanding them, and atoning, if that can ever really be said to be possible. The complications of gender, orientation, social class and wealth bring some unexpected twists to Jason’s journey, and I was left feeling that he’d become a worthwhile human being in spite of his advantages, and in no way because of them. 4.75 marbles

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