I probably would not have gravitated to Ron Irwin's novel, Flat Water Tuesday, to read, but MacMillan Publishing sent me an advance audio of it, which I was happy to listen to. Neither the actual audio in my hand, neither the Goodreads site, tells me who read this book, which is a pretty terrible oversight. It was a man and he did a perfectly serviceable job, as far as my memory serves.
Despite not being particularly athletic ourselves, my best friends and I are drawn to what we call "sports triumph" stories, whether in books or film, and for stories as varied as The Mighty Ducks and Chariots of Fire. We love the underdog aspects when there are any, and we love the pulling together as a team to overcome adversity.
Flat Water Tuesday is just such a novel. Or more precisely, is half such a novel. Narrated in the first person by Rob Carrey, this is yet another story that ducks back and forth between Rob's present storyline as a documentary photographer and his past as a scholarship student at a prestigious prep school in Connecticut. Let me say this off the bat: I cared not one whit for the present day story. I usually don't in frameworks like these. They are overused and generally make for lazy storytelling. I am, however, a sucker for the prep school/boarding school genre. My favorite film when I was of the prep school age myself was Dead Poets Society, and one of my favorite things about the Harry Potter books is the boarding school trope.
Rob is admitted to the Fenton School on scholarship as something like a 5th-year-senior because of his latent talent in rowing. He's a blue collar kid from a blue collar town, and never mind where or how he learned to row a single shell anyway. That kind of probing question would tear apart this book. Can't look too closely at that improbability. The main thing is that he's been recruited to Fenton to row in the coxed four (feel free to giggle here--I sure did), known within certain circles as...drumroll, please...the GOD FOUR. I had to fight rolling my eyes every time the phrase THE GOD FOUR came up. NB: I don't think those words are actually capitalized in the books, but you can tell that the characters are thinking of them in all caps anyway.
Okay, so there's class conflict, sexual tension, the town-vs-gown tradition, and the double stench of sweat and privilege permeating this book. Fine, that's about what I expected. However, I found myself only mildly caring about any of this: Will Rob learn to row the right way? Will he date Ruth, the team's coxswain? Will anybody in the book recognize Ruth's anorexia (excuse me, she only weighs 80 frickin' pounds)? Will the Fenton School win THE GOD FOUR race this year? SPOILER: Oh yeah, and will the tightly-strung, good looking, rich, athletic, perfect captain of THE GOD FOUR turn out to be suicidal? Dunno. You'll have to read it and see.
I actually enjoyed learning a bit about the sport of rowing, and as I said, I am a sucker for a sports-triumph story. But even the boarding school bits didn't hold my attention as much as I'd expected. If I hadn't been listening to this book on audio, I doubt I would have finished it. More than Dead Poets Society, this book reminded me strongly of A Separate Peace, complete with the tragic end and the main character woefully debating his own complicity in that tragedy.
If you love rowing or if you love reading about the first world problems of thirty-something white men who are haunted by their past, this might be the book for you.