Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Memorable and Moving First Novel by Ron Irwin: Review of "Flat Water Tuesday"

Ron Irwin has written a remarkable first novel, "Flat Water Tuesday," that is more than just a coming of age saga.  Speaking largely through a combination of flashbacks to his prep school days at Fenton School and real time struggles in New York and on location in Africa, narrator Rob Carrey recounts his post-graduate year rowing for the Fenton "God Four" varsity boat.  It was a tumultuous and life-changing year for each member of the crew - Carrey, John "Jumbo" Perry, Connor, Wadsworth and Ruth - the only female coxswain in the history of Fenton rowing.

The tone and substance of the piece reminded me a bit of several books I have treasured over the years that also have sought to capture something of the ethos and tensions of prep school life: "The Art of Fielding," "A Prayer For Owen Meany," and "A Separate Peace."  Irwin has composed a piece the fleshes out quite well the characters of Carey, Connor, Perry, Ruth and their crusty coach, the enigmatic and inscrutable Channing.  These were individuals similar to ones I had come to know during my own prep school days.  The author captures the below-the-surface undercurrents and tensions that exist within the typical prep school community.  The reader feels the divide that can never be truly crossed between the privileged Ivy league legacy kids who fly off to Aspen for the weekend, and the working class stiffs who have been invited to the party because they excel in academics or an particular sport that is valued in the Ivies.  Crew is one such sport.

Although I could sense the tragedies that lurked just around the next bend in the narrative, I read voraciously to see what would happen to characters whose fates I had come to care about and identify with.  The feel of Irwin's beautiful prose is in evidence in this passage near the end of the story.  Carrey has gone for a run by himself at the end of his class's 15th reunion - a weekend that includes a memorial service for a fallen classmate and member of the God Four crew.:

"And then a miracle.  A boat was making its way down to me.  A small skull, the oars pressing into the water evenly, rhythmically, driven by a good hand.  I waited to hear the sounds of the oarlocks, hear the exhalation of the rower, the backsplash of the blades, but it moved in silence.

It wasn't a sculler.  It was a bird flying out of the sun and over the surface of the water, skimming it, just touching before lifting up and out of the river valley.  I watched it fly over the mountains, wings beating.  I looked once again at the river, but the sunlight had shifted and the surface had become a cool shadow.  And I knew for sure that the bird would continue on and make its way to the ocean.  On its journey it would fly over millions of us.  It would soar over broken hearts and broken bodies and ended relationships and new beginnings and sons and daughters and parents and rivers and boats and schools and kids free for the summer and it would just keep going.  It would fly over cemeteries and cars and houses and fields and roads and highways and then into the clouds, through shame and longing and regret and grief and forgiveness and laughter and childless love." (page 305)

Wow!  That pretty much sums up much of this lovely book and the arc of many of our lives.



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