The Starboard Sea
by Amber Dermont
The high tide rushed in and washed over the break. That far from shore, only the sharp rips of the rocks were visible, and a strange figure stood a hundred yards out, surrounded by waves, with no discernible path behind itself. For a brief moment I thought it was a cormorant. The tall black birds have no oil on their feathers, so they stand with wings unfolded, waiting for the sun to dry their plumage. But as I walked closer I saw it was a person. (p 9)
Several years ago I read Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum. I was impressed by his windswept tale of a trip of more than 46,000 miles over three years at the age of fifty, a solo circumnavigation. I mention this because that book is one of several that plays a supporting role in a first novel by Amber Dermont, a coming of age tale The Starboard Sea. Perhaps the teenager in this story will develop some of the maturity and courage that Joshua Slocum demonstrated. This is only the start for him, a jumping-off point for what is yet to be.
The story begins in 1987, when 18-year-old Jason Prosper begins a final year at Bellingham, a third-rate private school for well-off delinquents. Confused about his sexuality, he's alternately self-absorbed and self-aware. He does not seem to fit in with most of his peers during his periods of introspection which are some of the best parts of the novel. The author is successful in slowly developing Jason's background through these moments and the flashbacks to his life at his previous school with his best friend Cal. Dermont is a confident stylist, musical and alliterative. Jason has an older brother, a forerunner for avaricious bankers who discusses "turning their Renoir into an ATM", which is disconcerting because it sounds like something a wealthy philistine might conceivably say. Though Jason is not without faults he appears favorable in comparison. In addition to the coming of age theme there is an overlay of criticism of the privileged life of the boys and girls at the school. because the starboard sea of the title is "the right sea, the true sea … the best path in life". Dermont's strongest writing describes sailing but when Prosper competes in a championship, she sensibly resists a dramatic sporting climax. Instead, the skewed sense of loyalty that his unhappy parents instill in him suggests that, although Prosper is committed to breaking the cycle of inherited misery, he will never entirely escape the small world of the entitled. The economic news of the late eighties is ever present in the background.
Prosper confronts prejudice and corruption, befriending Bellingham's lone black student and investigating the fate of an enigmatic girl, Aidan, who was on the verge of becoming the friend that might replace his best friend Cal from his previous school. There is a certain amount of tragedy in Jason's life that must also be experienced before he can come to terms with his personal destiny. The idea that "sailing is the art of asking questions" reflects the novel's unresolved conundrums: fathers, present and absent, are a source of angst, so are we better off with or without them? And do Dermont's upper-class grotesques live with too little or too much shame? Along with the image of the ocean, the night sky becomes an indicator with stars as symbolic guides for life. The ocean is also the potential source for answers because the starboard sea of the title is "the right sea, the true sea … the best path in life". Dermont's best writing describes sailing but when Prosper competes in a championship, she sensibly resists a dramatic sporting climax. It is this writing that elevates the novel to the class with those like John Knowles' A Separate Peace that capture both the magic and the angst of developing the foundation for a life that is yet to be.
View all my reviews