After reading Amber Dermont’s ambitious first novel, The Starboard Sea, a friend of mine remarked half admiringly and half critically, “She has written the great American novels, plural.” The novel is clearly influenced by classics like Moby Dick, The Catcher in the Rye, The Sun Also Rises, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Dermont freshly imagines and updates the coming-of-age novel to include contemporary concerns like teen bullying, confusion about sexual identity and the national character of the United States.
We first meet the 18-year-old narrator and protagonist, Jason Prosper, in 1988, driving with his father to begin senior year of high school at Bellingham Academy, a school of last resort for teenagers dismissed from other institutions. Under a veneer of wealth and prestige, these young people smolder with unresolved passions and a proclivity to violence. Jason observes, “We weren’t bad people, but having failed that initial test of innocence and honor, we no longer felt burdened to be good.”
At its heart the novel is the tale of Jason’s star-crossed love life, marked first by his relationship with a roommate named Cal from his previous school and then by a burgeoning passion for Aidan, a young woman he meets at Bellingham. Jason finds himself psychologically at sea sorting out his memories of Cal from his hopes with respect to Aidan. When Jason’s brother takes him to a whaling museum in New Bedford and observes, “You and Cal were like Ishmael and Queequeg” Jason tells himself, “If Cal was my past, Aidan was quickly becoming my future.”
Dermont places a quasi-spiritual longing at the heart of her novel, as Jason seeks redemption and forgiveness for his past wrongs everywhere except in formally religious environments. He says of his favorite book, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, “You could learn a lot about what it must have been like to go to war, to be wounded and unable to return to your former life. How Jake’s impotence and expatriation were a metaphor for his guilt.” Everyone in the novel seems to be in flight from shame and failure. The academy’s headmaster preaches “shame is the scourge of cowards,” but Dermont raises the possibility that there is a holy shame that comes from acknowledging one’s wrongs and grieving their effects.
Jason’s name alludes both to the leader of the Argonauts and to Shakespeare’s island wizard Prospero. He is portrayed as simultaneously heroic and anti-heroic, for he is capable of despicable actions but also admirable in his radical devotion to those he loves.
Dermont skillfully charts the mood swings of adolescence, from giddy euphoria to suicidal depression; but occasionally her writing seems artificial, as when she makes the names of three female characters—Aidan, Nadia and Diana—to be anagrams of one another. This implausibility briefly makes the novel feel like a creative writing class exercise, and in fact Dermont is a professor of English and creative writing at Agnes Scott College. Midway through the novel the plot quickens as Jason ponders his peers’ penchant for violence and the thin line between hazing and homicide.
Dermont’s unanchored youths suffer much, but within that pain Jason and Cal’s love for one another had opened a vista for them to the “starboard sea” that Cal defined as “the right sea, the true sea, or like finding the best path in life.” Dermont’s descriptions of competitive sailing echo Melville’s richly detailed whaling arcana, but the breezes blowing through the book are also deeply symbolic of the shifting and perilous fortunes of young adulthood. Jason is storm-tossed and shipwrecked more than once.
Many readers will find this a richly rewarding novel portraying a sensitive youth’s growth into adulthood. The American dream symbolized by the green light at the end of a dock in The Great Gatsby has always had something to do with adolescence, whether delayed or occurring at an age-appropriate moment. It seems to be a time of life that is simultaneously euphoric with new freedoms and tragically sad with losses, whether the loss of childhood, a childhood companion, or one’s idealized image of one’s parents.
Several carefully woven images recur throughout the novel, including Jason’s desire to learn celestial navigation, his laboring to write an honest autobiographical essay for his Princeton University application and images of storms, shipwrecks, secrets and stars. Cal and Jason charted their lives together beginning with the gold stars awarded by their grade school teacher and then moved to the mythically named constellations by which sailors navigate.
Dermont’s frankness about the late 1980s version of adolescent cruelty and promiscuity may strike some readers as alarming or indelicate, but the author needs these moments in order to bring alive her important larger themes of self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others. Jason’s sins are the sins of a not completely free person, someone bewildered by love, which acts as a mysterious wind, impossible to control or read precisely. The novel fittingly ends with an ambiguous scene that the reader must interpret. Dermont has laid out her fine and beautiful novel like the star constellations she describes, and the reader must chart his or her own journey through a rewarding and challenging narrative.