Nancy McKibben's Reviews > Flat Water Tuesday

Flat Water Tuesday by Ron  Irwin
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it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites, reviewed
Recommended for: readers who like Ivy League setting/characters; who like Donna Tartt; who like literary fiction

Flat Water Tuesday
By Ron Irwin

Flat Water Tuesday is a gorgeous book. Ostensibly about the senior year of a rowing team known as the God Four (only God can beat them), the novel is also an examination of teamwork, competition, pain, love and the weight of familial expectations in prose as smooth as the water the team sculls over.

A fifth year scholarship student, Rob Carrey, attends an exclusive Connecticut prep school with the single goal of rowing well enough to attract the attention of an Ivy League university. He has talent and an attitude.
I was mesmerized by the trees exploding out of the valley, the river snaking slow and thoughtful by the buildings. I always regarded this beauty with a sense of awe. And also anger and disbelief. I’d spent four years slugging it out at the Niccalsetti Senior School where a freight train ran right behind the one ragged football field we had. I’d never considered the existence of schools with this immense, unending, perfectly manicured splendor. It seemed to me that the entire season - all the trees and the grass and the perfection of the water - had been created just for us, the four hundred or so Fenton students who knew for sure they’d live forever . . .

I had only nine months of this kind of living and then it would be snatched away again and I’d be sent back to where I came from unless I was very, very fast on the water. Which was just fine by me, because I was dead sure that I was the fastest thing these bastards were ever going to see.
This narrator tells the story in flashbacks from a vantage point fifteen years after his time at Fenton, and we know from the get-go that something terrible occurs - so terrible that none of the team has seen each other for the past fifteen years or ever talked about what happened. But the pleasure of the book derives not from trying to guess the nature of the past tragedy, but in getting to know the characters and what drives them.

Connor Payne, the narrator’s nemesis, is the epitome of Fenton: “quiet and lithe as a panther. . . in the fashionably wilted Brooks Brothers blazer, Fenton School Boat Club tie and pressed trousers he always wore to class . . . Like all predators, he had a nose for weakness and wounds.” Although he is Rob’s teammate, Rob cannot help but regard him as an adversary. The two push each other to greater feats of athleticism, which is a good thing, right? Let the reader decide. Here is Rob watching Connor on the erg, a dry boat for rowers to train on indoors in the winter, and pitiless. (My daughter rowed crew, and she can testify to the pain the sport inflicts.)
Let him be weak, I thought. Let him not be equal to his bullshit.

Connor balled his body, reach and pulled. The machine snarled, whirred, and ticked back. He brought up the pace, and the machine began to hiss, its numbers reacting to every second stroke. His rasping breaths came quicker, the hissing turned into whines and then screeches. A blue vein stood out on his forehead, rose and pulsed into the sweat towel binding his hair. . . Two minutes. . . Then it was five minutes. . . The muscles lacing his forearms were straining, shifting over one another. . .

I sat in the dust of the boathouse, watching, my stomach filled with a black acid of fear. It was horrible to see how good he was. How easy it would be, I thought, to relent, To give up a few strokes. By now Connor’s body was revolting against the pain, his veins were filled with poison, his head was thrumming. What compelled him to seat himself to this feast of agony? Two hundred strokes passed, his blond hair was a wet blur. . .
Connor wins this one by three seconds, and the best that Rob can ever seem to do - in training runs, in rowing, in everything - is to stay even with him without ever passing him. Lots of testosterone in this book, and a very nuanced explanation of the sport of rowing. But clearly this kind of competition among team members is a problem to be solved, since they ultimately have to be willing to work together to win any races.Just to add a little more tension, the coxswain is a girl, Ruth, who, we realize, becomes a template of the woman with whom Rob falls in love in later life and is barely hanging onto when the book opens. Fenton does not prove to be a good training ground for relationships:
The hardest part of adjusting to this life was dealing with the constant insults, the bantering. Guys said things to your face here you’d kill them for at home. It was all we had in a world where you didn’t ever express affection or friendship, where to be overly committed to anything was considered in poor taste. This was as friendly as these guys could be.
As the book weaves between the two narratives, Rob at eighteen, Rob at thirty-three, we see the race toward tragedy unfold in the past as the the race toward - what? redemption? defeat? we are kept guessing till the end - unfolds in the present.Both thought-provoking and pleasurable,this is a novel to be savored.




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Reading Progress

June 30, 2013 – Started Reading
July 1, 2013 – Finished Reading
July 2, 2013 – Shelved
July 2, 2013 – Shelved as: favorites
July 13, 2013 – Shelved as: reviewed

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