‘Down the Shore’ is a stunning debut

Posted Sunday, Jun. 01, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

Down the Shore

by Stan Parish

Viking, $27.95

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Tom Alison, it might seem, is a lucky guy. He is smart, good-looking and did well academically at Lawrenceville, the elite prep school he attended as a day student in New Jersey.

He goes to fancy parties put on by the parents of his high school friends, and he helps his mom with her catering business in Princeton, where they moved when he was in sixth grade because she felt like she could provide a better life for him there than on Long Beach Island, a summer hot spot that shuts down in the off-season.

But that’s only part of his story.

Tom is also on probation, busted for drug possession. Columbia University, where he had been accepted early, then rescinded its offer. He’s bound instead for St. Andrews in Scotland, a very good school but also a place where lots of rich Americans go when their Plan A, or even Plan B, doesn’t work out.

And Tom, it seems, has a lot of issues to work out.

So begins Down the Shore, Stan Parish’s stunning debut novel, a coming-of-age story that plunges readers into both the scary and seedy world of drug dealing in Jersey and the perhaps scarier and sadder world of young adults with black Amex cards, Audi A3s and a sense of entitlement.

It’s a fast-paced novel that follows Tom’s inexorable downward spiral during his first year at St. Andrews, but it’s also a beautifully layered, beautifully written work. Scene-after-scene, expositions create complex characters and capture the details of the excess of the years right after the turn of this century while also carrying out timeless and compelling themes of friendship, family and self-discovery.

As senior year ends at Lawrenceville, Tom’s path crosses with two people who will set the course for his St. Andrews experience. One is a classmate — Clare Savage.

Clare is from a very wealthy family, but he’s suddenly in trouble. His parents have fled the country. His dad, an investment banker, is on the run. He’s apparently broken a lot of rules and taken other peoples’ money into his schemes. Yale is suddenly out of the question in Clare’s future, and he latches onto Tom and decides to go with him to St. Andrews.

Once in Scotland, Clare is immediately identified by the elite crowd as one of their kind, even though he uses his mother’s maiden name to try to hide his identity.

The other person is a girl, Kelsey, who is from New Jersey and is already a student at St. Andrews, where she runs with that same crowd, the kind of people who are friends with Prince William, who is in his second year at the school. (The prince is a minor character in several scenes of the novel.)

And so Tom finds himself part of a group that he sees as his destiny. He wants to be super rich, too, one day. He wants to take care of his mom and doesn’t want her to have to work.

He wants the trappings he’s seen in Lawrenceville and Princeton. And the group accepts him as Kelsey’s and Clare’s friend — he doesn’t always have the right clothes, other than the Rolex he got as a 15th birthday present from a dad he’s never met, but he’s happily willing to keep up the enormous quantities of drugs and alcohol that are being consumed and the sexual exploits that ensue.

But at the same time, Tom is an outsider and never really fits in. At a club one night, one of his friends orders champagne but then says he left his wallet at home and casually asks Tom to pick up the tab — about $800 — which sends Tom into a panic. For the reader (perhaps especially if you are old enough to be Tom’s mother), it’s painful to watch Tom lose his moral compass and his sense of self.

There’s a sense of impending doom that Tom doesn’t choose to see. His mom calls him to warn him about rumors she’s hearing about Clare and his parents, but he doesn’t heed her warnings and lies to her about what he knows.

When some of Tom’s oldest and best friends from the Jersey shore come to visit him in Scotland, they immediately notice a guy with a surfboard. It’s a sign of how disconnected Tom has become that he has been at St. Andrew’s for months and, passionate surfer that he is, isn’t even aware that a local surfing beach exists.

Author Stan Parish was born in Texas, but grew up in New Jersey. He went to The Lawrenceville School, then to St. Andrews and then to Wesleyan University, from which he graduated in 2006. In a story that ran in Slice magazine in September of 2013, Parish and his literary agent, Julie Barer, talk about the evolution of the novel, which began as Parish’s senior thesis.

Parish notes that Barer worked with him through many drafts to get the book ready to sell to publishers and how he knew his thesis needed some work: “ ‘Some work’ turned out to be the underestimation of 2009. The following week I got an envelope from Barer Literary that contained two documents: a client agreement for me to sign and a three-page edit letter which I immediately recognized as notes toward a stronger book — and an end to what little free time I had back then. The implication was clear: Congratulations. Now back to work.”

That work was worth it. Parish has an extraordinary ability to observe the details of daily life and transform them into a parallel fictional story that rings with authenticity, whether he’s describing a place or a feeling.

Take, for example, when Tom first walks through the halls of his dorm in St. Andrews, a hotel called Andrew Melville Hall: “Between each set of doors, an ax and an extinguisher were buried in the wall behind a pane of glass, signaling a fear of fire that seemed strange in a town where you spend most days expecting rain. Outside in the darkness, balls of rainfall were visible around the orange streetlights that ran along the empty road.”

Or this passage from a party where Tom takes MDMA, pure Ecstasy: “The Molly hit me all at once. I was alone in the hall, drinking water from the fountain, and when I straightened up, it felt like warmer, thicker blood had rushed into my head. I steadied myself with both hands on the wet stainless steel. Everything seemed to have a pulse that I could see only in my peripheral vision, so I kept casting my gaze around, trying to catch the corkboard or some distant floor tiles before they froze again.”

As I was reading, I couldn’t help but compare this novel to classic coming-of-age books like A Separate Peace (1959) and The Outsiders (1967), undoubtedly still on the reading list at schools like Lawrenceville. Down the Shore is awash in all the literary qualities of those classics, but captures contemporary culture, making those great works seem dusty and quaint.

Parish deftly shows the wonders of the big, wide world of opportunity in which today’s privileged young adults live — but also the challenges of having too much too soon, before you have time to know who you really are.

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