Successful relationships and winning teams mimic each other. They require trust. They require empathy. They, at times, require the surrendering of the self to better the union.
Flat Water Tuesday by Ron Irwin parallels relationships and teams in the telling of Rob Carrey’s teenage and adult life. The novel opens with a present-day letter sent to Rob from John Perry, one of his high school crew mates. The letter hints at events that occurred while Rob and John rowed in Fenton School’s elite rowing four. The hint, a modicum of a clue, powers the story to conclusion 353 pages later.
Rob Carrey joins the Fenton team as a blue-collar scholarship kid from Nicalsetti, New York. Rob’s a sculler, a single rower; yet, the team’s coach, Channing, chose Rob because of the talent that Rob could bring to the school’s premiere rowing four, aka, the God Four. Rowing in the four means that Rob will have to trust, empathize, and surrender a bit of himself. An ant hill of an obstacle for most, but for Rob the obstacle equals climbing Mt. Everest.
The God Four is actually five. Four rowers – Chris Wadsworth, John Perry, Connor Payne, and Rob, plus the coxswain Ruth Anderson. Chris features minimally in the story as John Perry’s best friend. John functions as Connor’s verbal punching bag and the boat’s heavyweight power. Connor, the boat’s stroke and team captain, plays the arrogant, rich boy and Ruth fills in as the level-headed leader directing from the boat’s stern. Chris, John, Connor, and Ruth have rowed together for years before Rob’s addition to the team. They are a tight and loyal group. Rob’s reluctance to immerse himself into the team leads to a tragedy that haunts each member of the boat well into adulthood.
Irwin’s skilled character development casts Connor and Rob as villains and as heroes. Rob is the quintessential outsider to the opulent boarding school. He’s the underdog you cheer for, at first. Connor is the snarky, smug prep school boy whose extreme privilege taints his likeability. Rob and Connor compete on every minutiae, a rivalry that ferments Rob’s apathy toward Connor and eventually morphs Rob into the villain and Connor into the hero.
Connor’s hero-within peeks through his cocky shell when Rob falls into an icy river. Connor endangers himself by rescuing Rob. As Rob’s recovering in the infirmary, his coach, Channing, rebukes Rob’s for his riskiness and for Rob’s dislike of Connor: “You may hate him, but he is the only person on this team with wits and courage enough to rescue you, and I am not sure how he managed to do it.” The incident begins the slow erosion of Rob as hero into Rob as villain.
As an adult, intimacy still evades Rob. His long-time girlfriend and business partner, Carolyn is kicking him out of their shared New York city apartment. The death of yet another relationship in Rob’s life coupled with the truths that John’s letter arouses finally spurs Rob to examine his failure at being on a team and prods him toward fixing his relationship with Carolyn.
His love for Carolyn is paramount. In some of the most romantic words I’ve ever read, Rob recalls the intensity of emotion he felt with Carolyn:
“And what I wanted to whisper to her, if I had the words (if such thoughts come to a man so utterly overwhelmed), was that she could have this section of my life right now, and the rest, too, if she wanted it. It was the crazy, silent deal you make with yourself when you suddenly touch the woman who was made for you and feel that searing terror of loneliness after years of living by yourself. It happened to me in a crooked room against a body I yearn for like nothing else, need more than water, or blood or breathing.”
The fact that Rob could fumble his relationship with Carolyn so badly when he loved her so deeply speaks loudly to Rob’s flaw. Who, in feeling this way for another person, would ever want to part from the person’s company?
Irwin leaves no relationship type untouched. A sub-narrative about relationships between children and their parents swim through the novel. He contrasts the supportive unconditional love between Rob and his Dad against Connor’s parents’ habit of doling out small parcels of love only when Connor achieves certain goals. What’s peculiar is that Connor, whose parents are despicable, would risk his life for his friends; while Rob, whose parents are ideal, fails to merely console his friends when doing so would mean preserving a life.
Child psychologists warn that when a child hits adolescence peers influence the child’s beliefs more than their parents do. Rob often describes his hometown as an atmosphere of be tough or die. Was his teen-life a contributing factor in his lack of team skills? Or is Irwin arguing that parents do hold a strong sway over a teen’s self-esteem? Is it Connor’s neediness for a family that allows him to reach out to others when they need help?
Irwin confesses to editing the story to ensure optimal pacing, which he did well; yet, questions about the source of Rob’s inability to be on a team pecked at me while I read and reread the story. Was something nixed that could have explained Rob as well as the soul of intimacy better?
Subtracting my unanswered curiosity about Rob’s back story, I loved the novel. Irwin’s thesis on relationships is as beautifully written as his depiction of rowing; depictions Irwin earned by rowing in high school and at university. If you’ve ever blistered your palms on an oar and even if you haven’t, Flat Water Tuesday is a page-turning must read.
Give it a read and when you’re done. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Irwin’s portrayals of relationships.