January 30, 2013
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Amber Dermont's novel The Starboard Sea is a stellar and promising debut that beautifully tackles issues of class, race, and gender with its complex cast of characters.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"The Starboard Sea has permanently parted ways with the predictable. This is not a strictly prep school story. Its secrets are not tacked on or contrived. It is a rich, quietly artful novel that is bound for deep water, with questions of beauty, power and spiritual navigation as its main concerns. The title refers not to the right side of a boat but to the right course through life, and the immense difficulty of finding and following it."
For me, one of the lucky strokes of setting The Starboard Sea in the late 1980s was being able to reference iconic music from that era. The years 1986-1987 were especially groundbreaking for great pop albums and I made a point of name-checking U2's The Joshua Tree, R.E.M.'s Document, Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet, Whitney Houston's Whitney, Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill, Mötley Crüe's Girls, Girls, Girls, Madonna's True Blue and The Cure's Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. I tried to hit a few of the high notes as well as the guiltiest pleasures. At times, my characters might have questionable taste, but they know a teenage anthem when they hear it.
The Starboard Sea is set at a third-tier prep school, Bellingham Academy, that caterers to all of the rich kids who've gotten kicked out of all of the better schools. New England boarding schools share a preppie soundtrack that borrows heavily from the canons of Classic Rock, Reggae and the Grateful Dead. Music to get stoned by. Music to make out to. Music to listen to while you are alone in your dorm room wishing you were stoned and making out with someone.
"Southern Cross"—Crosby Stills & Nash
The pinnacle of yacht rock, "Southern Cross," is an underrated melodic masterpiece, a story of love, loss and the glory of being alone on the water. The main character in The Starboard Sea, Jason Prosper, is a champion sailor who has just lost his best friend and sailing partner, Cal. Crosby Stills Nash (and Young) remain a beloved boarding school favorite. Stephen Stills was a preppie himself and he wrote "Southern Cross" about a sailing trip he took as a young man. In the novel, when Jason and Cal discuss the complexities of celestial navigation I know they're thinking of the stars in this song.
One of the peculiarities of boarding school life is that everyone already knows everyone else and has already dated/broken up with/cheated on everyone else. Escape is impossible. When Jason transfers to his new school, he is looking for a fresh start but he walks straight into Bristin, a coquette he and Cal both dated. Jason, a serious singer, knew things weren't going to work out with Bristin when he heard her butcher, "Dear Prudence."
Jason secures the mysterious Aidan's friendship with a song. He serenades her at the piano with the classic lines, "When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school/It's a wonder I can think at all." His singing becomes a gesture of courtship and Jason learns near the end of the novel that Aidan has kept a list of all the songs he played for her from the wistful "You Stepped Out of a Dream" to the ridiculous "Home Sweet Home" by Mötley Crüe. It may or may not be true that a blond British boy named Will played "Kodachrome" for me on a baby grand when I was a girl.
"Hotel California"—The Eagles
Aidan is from the West Coast and she describes her mother, a citrus heiress and Academy Award-winning producer, as being like the song, "Hotel California." Though the parents in The Starboard Sea are largely absent, I knew once I described Aidan's mother, she'd make an appearance and that her presence in the novel would need to reflect the romantic nihilism and danger of that song.
"Could You Be Loved"—Bob Marley
Take a walk on a prep school campus and I guarantee you will hear Bob Marley's Legend blasting from a dorm room window. "Don't let them fool ya/Or even try to school ya," is the classic high school battle cry. Bob Marley taught a lot of young people how to defy authority with a spliff and a smile. He died for our sins. This song plays after the hurricane in the novel has hit. The recovery has just begun and Jason and his friends are eager to take advantage of the chaos.
"Sweat Loaf"—Butthole Surfers
Tazewell, one of Jason's frenimies (boys have them too!) name-checks the Butthole Surfers and mentions the possibility of going to one of their shows. The thought of a group of preppies being terrorized by the stage antics of Gibby Haynes, King Coffey and Teresa Nervosa fills me with great joy. The lyrics to "Sweat Loaf" serve as a punk rock summary of adolescence: "Daddy, what does regret mean? /Well son, the funny thing about regret is, /It's better to regret something you have done, /Than to regret something you haven't done. /And by the way, if you see your mom this weekend,/Be sure and tell her, SATAN, SATAN, SATAN!!!"
"Town Called Malice"—The Jam
This is the single best song to Pogo to when you are young and blitz and find yourself at a party in Beacon Hill after the Head of the Charles Regatta. You will most likely be kicked out of said party but you will find another, better party at the Ritz Carlton. You will make out with the girl/boy of your dreams. In the morning you will feel sorry for how you behaved but, hey, "Stop apologizing for the things you've never done."
"Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"—Crosby Stills Nash
Stephen Stills wrote this epic four-part suite in honor of Judy Collins and turned their failed love affair into an eternal Cri de Coeur. The final Spanish section references a desire to sail to the Caribbean. Jason sings this song at a party and the longing in his voice captures the heartbreak he feels (spoiler alert) over losing Cal and Aidan. "Don't let the past remind us of what we are not now."
"It's The End of The World As We Know It"—R.E.M.
Who hasn't attempted and failed to memorize the lyrics to this great song—LEONARD BERNSTEIN. I remember when Document came out and though I loved Michael Stipe's manic litany, I was strangely moved by the plaintive background wail, "It's time I had some time alone." For years, I knew that I wanted this song to play at a critical moment in the narrative—the moment when Jason feels most isolated.
"Living on a Prayer"—Bon Jovi
I know what you're thinking but, trust me, if you blast this song late at night while driving down a dark country road lined with multi-million dollar mansions you will disturb the peace and feel more alive, more in touch with the spirituality of the universe and more deeply committed to the powers of youth.
"Sometimes it Snows In April"—Prince and the Revolution
I listened to this song a lot when I was writing about the love between Jason and Cal. It always makes me weep. This is one of the last songs Prince recorded with The Revolution and in many ways it is his farewell to the band. The first line describes Tracy dying, "soon after a long fought civil war," and has often been read as a reference to Tracy's struggle with his sexuality. I think it's Prince's finest love song—after, of course, "Sexy Motherfucker". What moves me most about the song is its ultimate sense of hope, "I often dream of heaven and I know that Tracy's there/I know that he has found another friend/Maybe he's found the answer 2 all the April snow/Maybe one day I'll see my Tracy again." In order to go on, Jason has to believe that he will see Cal again and be forgiven.
"After You Who?"—Fred Astaire
In the novel, Aidan owns a pair of Fred Astaire's shoes. Astaire died in 1987, just months before the start of the novel, and I always knew I wanted to work him into the story. Though famous for his dancing, my friend Amy Margolis introduced me to the power of Astaire's singing. His voice is light and nimble but full of longing. Astaire recorded this Cole Porter song for the film The Gay Divorcee, which marked his first starring role with Ginger Rogers. The song questions the possibility of love after the end of a great romance. It is the perfect spotlight foxtrot for Jason and Aidan.
"The Only Living Boy in New York"—Simon Garfunkel
Mid-way through the novel, Jason returns home to Manhattan for the holidays and has a memorable evening alone in his apartment that leads to a walk in snowy Central Park. There is nothing quite so powerful as the feeling of solitude in a crowded city. Though Jason is eighteen and a semester away from college, he still feels the strong backward pull of childhood and is still very much a boy. The second half of the novel is his attempt to mature and pick up the mantle of adulthood while still retaining the promise of his youth.
"Bizarre Love Triangle"—New Order
Ultimately, I hope The Starboard Sea is a love story unlike any other. A love triangle between a boy and two ghosts. Though Cal and Aidan never meet, the two unite at the end to help save Jason from himself. I'd like to think of the three of them on life raft in the middle of the sea dancing wildly to this song.
Amber Dermont and The Starboard Sea links:
Financial Times review
Kirkus Reviews review
New York Times review (by Janet Maslin)
New York Times review (by Eleanor Henderson)
Washington Post review
also at Largehearted Boy:
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