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Prep school novel meets genre's high standards

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Amber Dermont, a professor of creative writing in Decatur, Ga., and a graduate of the respected Iowa Writers' Workshop, sets her first novel in fertile territory -- a New England prep school. Some fine American novels have dealt with prep-school life, and Dermont's meets the high standard they set.

Consider the elite group her novel joins: The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (1951); A Separate Peace, by John Knowles (1960); A Good School, by Richard Yates (1978); Old School, by Tobias Wolff (2003).

All four of these feature young male protagonists, three of them telling their own stories in the first person. Dermont could have gone with a female narrator, as did another woman writer, Curtis Sittenfeld, with her funny and insightful first novel about a girls' school, Prep (2005). But Dermont dares to give us a male first-person narrator, Jason Prosper, and all his observations and thoughts ring true.

The Starboard Sea presents Jason's year at Bellingham Academy on the Massachusetts coast. He's had to go there after being "banished" from the more highly rated Kensington Prep, because of a less-than-stellar performance profoundly affected by the suicide of his best friend Cal. The story begins in fall, 1987 -- before ubiquitous cellphones and Facebook -- and Jason's rich New York father has paved the way for his son by funding two new dorms at Bellingham.

Jason is an articulate 18-year-old, somewhat jaded by his family's wealth and rather sophisticated in his views of innocence and the second chances one gets in life. As a narrator, he is more reserved than Salinger's Holden, more like Knowles' Gene, but he has his own foibles.

Some of his observations resonate with world-weariness, as in: "It was that point in the evening when everyone either wants to have sex or wants to break something."

Jason is only one of a large cast of fully realized characters; in fact, it is remarkable how wide a variety of people come to life through Jason's eyes: parents, teachers, school administrators, girls (Bellingham has been co-ed for four years) and a gang of memorable guys.

Jason is especially adept at sailing and is expected to be part of the Bellingham team. He opts out at first, recalling his success with Cal; his reminiscences and eventual involvement allow Dermont to educate the reader on the finer points of the sport:

"'It's the waves we need to worry about, not the winds,' [Cal would] always say, and he was right. Winds could knock a boat around, but a wave could seize a ship and blast her open. I knew how to read the wind, but Cal was an expert at appraising the waves."

Jason even points out the great number of everyday clichés that come from sailing, such as "give a wide berth," "above-board," "high and dry," "know the ropes," "on an even keel," and "three sheets to the wind."

Into Jason's life comes an enigmatic young woman named Aidan. Intrigued by her from the start, he begins to fall for her, but any kind of relationship is made difficult partly by school policies but mostly by the parties and pranks that prevail all around them.

When, at mid-novel, a storm hits the region and Aidan drowns, Jason must face his own culpability in another loss of someone close to him.

The Starboard Sea is an absorbing novel about growing up, the impressive debut of a major writing talent.

Winnipeg writer Dave Williamson's new novel, Dating, will be published in April by Turnstone Press.

The Starboard Sea

By Amber Dermont

Raincoast Books, 310 pages, $29

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 3, 2012 J10

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