Book Review: Down the Shore
By Stan Parish
It can be a bit dreary, reading a quick synopsis of Stan Parish’s debut novel Down the Shore – the story of a young man from the New Jersey provinces who attends first the prestigious Lawrenceville prep school and then Scotland’s St. Andrews University – and then reading a quick synopsis of Stan Parish’s life – the story of a young man from the New Jersey provinces who attends first the prestigious Lawrenceville prep school and then Scotland’s St. Andrews University. When we add in the fact that Tom Alison, the working-class main character of Down the Shore, is a cool, sarcastic answer-ready former drug dealer, everything has the potential to become even drearier.
We’re all familiar with such books, these awkward-elbowed quasi-wish fulfillment things done along the lines of Nick McDonnell’s Twelve and Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero. The questions such books raise are both embarrassing and pointless, which makes it all the more annoying that they’re also unavoidable. It’s annoying that every fiction-season throws up at least a couple of these things, sweatily cobbled from Capote-style notes scribbled at townie bars and late-night dorm sessions, and the annoyance comes in part from the involuntary wondering about which random scraps of each manuscript might by chance have the bad grace to be invented. We find ourselves staring at the author’s smug photo and wondering “Did he deal drugs?” and also, more bitterly, “Could he write fiction, if he tried?”
Whether or not Down the Shore is mostly fiction or mostly – whatever the Hell the alternative is (ginned-up autobiography? Class reunion bragging?) – it reads smoothly enough as it unfolds the story of Tom Alison’s upbringing and fish-out-of-water introduction to both the world of St. Andrews and the world of the Clares, a rich, slightly fugitive, ex-pat American family whose spoiled, charismatic son Clare is Tom’s classmate and friend. The novel is told from Tom’s viewpoint, and it can be evocative enough in simple observer mode:
Judging by the boxes and the sparseness of the built-in bookshelves, the Quinn-Baldwin family hadn’t lived here long. We walked softly on the ground floor, through the entryway and empty dining room, unsure what to expect. I had worked parties at dozens of new houses like this one with grandiose exteriors borrowed from another period and layouts with no imagination brought to bear, just a series of boxes to move through.
Many of the people Tom encounters regard him “with a mixture of sympathy and apathy” once they learn that he’s no longer dealing drugs himself, but his restraint certainly doesn’t extend to personal consumption – the novel is crammed full of young people boozing and drugging themselves all day long, as when Tom is being chauffeured to the undisclosed location of Clare’s parents and decides to spend the trip snorting coke and feels a bit self-conscious about it when he thinks about the eavesdropping driver:
“Can we play the radio, sir?” I asked, hoping that the noise would mask the quick nasal intakes and the choppy dialogue that followed. I was working up a mound of powder on the end of my room key when the driver settled on an oldies station. The coke kept my eyes inside the car, and off the route we were taking. In case anybody asked me where the Savages were staying, I could tell them, honestly, that I had no idea.
But whatever vividness these scenes have is constantly undercut every time any reader glances back at that smug author photo and its accompanying biographical paragraph. It’s all undercut by the same question cropping up over and over again: how much of this really happened? The fights? The drugs? The bratty behavior of Prince William’s entourage in St. Andrews classes? Which of Parish’s friends or enemies are reading which snatches of dialogue and thinking, “that bastard”?
These kinds of questions wouldn’t be so distracting, so irritating, if the prose of the book itself were stronger, and the prose would be stronger if it weren’t relying so arrogantly on the author’s belief that his own adolescence is a more bitchin’ story than anything he could make up. Judges of such matters usually maintain that young authors must get novels like this one out of their systems before they move on to more serious creating – that they need to write This Side of Paradise before they can write The Great Gatsby, as it were.
If that’s the case, Stan Parish certainly hasn’t disgraced himself, nor can Viking’s gamble on him be called foolish; the navel-gazing on display in Down the Shore might be off-putting, but it’s competently done, and readers who can ignore the loud hinting that they’re on the outside of one long in-joke will find things to enjoy in these pages – while they wait for Gatsby.