If there’s one conversation I hate having, it’s the one about whether or not you should truly judge a book by its cover. I mean, let’s face it, there are some horrible book covers out there, ones that can convince you that if the author and publisher can’t be bothered to spruce things up a bit, what’s between the covers might not be worth looking into. They’re superficial, sure, but covers can say so much: they are sometimes designed to attract people of specific genders, ethnicities, or ages. And in many cases, the cover has absolutely nothing to do with the story it represents, leaving me to wonder how many great books go unread because there is something in our brains that makes us halt when we see a book cover that doesn’t appeal to us.
I’ll admit that upon seeing the cover of Stan Parish’s debut, Down the Shore, I was unsure I’d peel the cover back to see what was inside. The silhouettes of two surfers carrying their boards had me thinking that, at best, this would be the story of some dudes finding themselves in some sort of Endless Summer-type setting. Another book about dudes written by a dude. Dudes and their problems. Poor dudes. And to some extent, yes, Down the Shore is a book about dudes. It’s a book about young men with privilege getting into trouble, and I’d say the age of the protagonist could qualify Parish’s novel as a “coming-of-age” book; yet Parish deftly defies all the pitfalls many dude writers (usually named Jonathan or Joshua) tend to get mired in when dealing with any or all of those things. It isn’t totally a book about a straight white dude who doesn’t know how good he has it, but it isn’t far from that either. Instead, Down the Shore is a look at how we screw up, try to redeem ourselves, and inevitably screw up again.
The book deals with privilege head-on by giving us a young and handsome protagonist who gets exiled from his prestigious East Coast boarding school; while that might automatically send signals to some that we have ourselves a regular old Holden Caulfield on our hands, it goes a little deeper than that as we realize that the protagonist, Tom, doesn’t necessarily come from the same economic background as his classmates. Yes, he’s good looking and intelligent enough to have been down the road to success, but Parish holds back a little, never letting his main character wallow in his woes. He was accepted by his peers, he had a pretty good shot at the big time, but he blew it.
The novel starts out in the early 2000s on the Jersey Shore, the same place romanticized by a hundred Bruce Springsteen songs, where Tom parties, has sex, and meets a new friend, Clare Savage, whose banker father is caught up in the type of major financial scandal we’re used to hearing about on a daily basis. Clare provides a sort of poisonous friendship that makes a book irresistible, like a Sebastian Flyte or Tad Allagash: he comes from a better background than the protagonist, yet his family’s slow fall from grace and his own destructive ways provide a distorted mirror for Tom to look into. He should learn from what he sees, but he’s young and dumb, so he doesn’t.
What’s Tom’s problem? He makes youthful mistakes that maybe his peers could get away with because of their family influence or money, but he can’t afford to. Yet he is privileged enough to get a second chance at a boarding school in Scotland, where he sees royalty roaming the halls and other American kids trying to find their way back down the path to wealth and prosperity, thanks to a trust set up for him by a father figure from his past.
So, what sets Down the Shore apart from other books that could be rearranged to look more like it? For one, there’s no sap. You aren’t made to feel sorry for Tom, but you do hope he turns out fine. There’s also the fact that, for a debut novelist, Parish shows a knack for balancing things, pacing his story, and painting a picture that makes Down the Shore one of the year’s best debut novels, as well as the type of book that, based on that cover alone, just calls out to be read during the summer.