When I saw the cover-page review in the Times Book Review, this seemed an obvious novel to read just before “Oceanic Shakespeares.” It’s a sailing and prep-school story, and while I don’t always love the latter, the sailing-language in this book is fresh and precise:
You never sail with one wind. Always with three. The true, the created, and the apparent wind: the father, son, and Holy Ghost. The true wind is the one that can’t be trusted. The true wind comes in strong from one direction, but then the boat cuts through the air and creates her own headwind in turn. (39)
The plot, in a way that may be so familiar it goes unremarked in in the two reviews I’ve read, limns The Tempest. Our hero is Jason Prosper, master-sailor, wind-seer, and young man with a dark past. His sailing partner & best friend Cal — surely we don’t need to spell out the remaining syllables? — has committed suicide, which leads Prosper to a new school, where he finds Aidan — the name means fire, not air, but it seems close enough — a magical California spirit. A familiar trio.
The best parts press hard against the metaphorics of sailing. Jason almost drowns his prospective new partner on the first practice of the season, quits the team for the fall, then returns in spring. That plot seems rote enough, but the book’s more interested in connections —
Knots are a form of control. The halyards, sheets, painter, and lines all run because of knots…. ‘The funny thin about a knot,’ [Jason] said, ‘is that it actually weakens the rope.’ (168).
When I read the Times review I wanted to play the etymology game that the author made me wait til almost the very end of the book to find:
We’d see who could come up with the most common words, sayings, and cliches that came from sailing. ” Batten down the hatches,” “give a wide berth,” taken aback,” “above-board,” “true blue,” “high and dry,” “hand over fist,” “know the ropes,” three sheets to the wind,” “walk the plank,” “catch my drift,” “on an even keel,” “loose cannon,” “miss the boat,” “chew the fat,” “let the cat out of the bag,” “no room to swing a cat,” “beat a dead horse,” “shake a leg,” “slush fund,” “cut and run,” “close quarters,” “deep six,” “scuttlebutt,” “chockablock,” “the cut of your jib”… (273)
The title comes from a term Cal invents to fill out this list —
…it means the right sea, the true sea, or like finding the best path in life. It’s deep. I’m telling you, it’s going to catch on. By this time next year, everyone will be using it. (274)
As that last quotation shows, this debut novel risks sentimentality, in the way that writing about near-children sometimes lets you get away with. (It reminds me a bit of The Hunger Games, another first-person teen novel that really has caught on.) Or is it writing about sailing that enables sentimentality? That deep sea of feeling?