BOY IN THE WATER by Stephen Dobyns


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An enjoyably overstuffed thriller, set in the rarefied (and intrigue-laden) world of a New England prep school, from veteran writer Dobyns, author of the Saratoga mystery series and such interestingly different other novels as The Two Deaths of Sonora Puccini (1988) and The Wrestler’s Cruel Study (1993). The story begins with an eerie Prologue in which two unidentified men observe—but do not report—the body of a dead boy floating in an indoor swimming pool. Then Dobyns backtracks to introduce several major characters. Primus inter pares is clinical psychologist Jim Hawthorne, mourning the deaths of his wife and daughter in the fire that left him permanently scarred, and finally ready to take up a new life as headmaster at New Hampshire’s Bishop’s Hill Academy, a formerly prestigious institution now scraping by as a haven for “damaged kids.” We also meet teenaged Jessica Weaver, who moonlights as a stripper, earning money to finance a “hit” on a sexually abusive stepfather; and murderous drifter Frank LeBrun, a French-Canadian psychopath with a fondness for dumb jokes, who’s hired by the Academy as a cook—with predictably nasty results. One can sense Dobyns cackling fiendishly as he skillfully depicts the slough of cross-purposes and corruption that is Bishop’s Hill, revealing one desperate character and layer of complication after another. A lonely divorcÇe, a gay school-psychologist, a Machiavellian administrator, and an enigmatic chain-smoking student who’s too inquisitive for his own good—all are among the vivid figures thrown into the mix of a breakaway narrative that blithely defies credibility as it marches swiftly through several linked catastrophes toward a Grand Guignol climax high above the embattled campus. Jim Hawthorne’s mingled rectitude, compassion, and guilt are strikingly rendered—but it’s not subtle characterization that will most please readers. More likely, they’ll simply lean back and luxuriate in this clever tale’s outrageously entertaining melodramatics. (First printing of 60,000)

Pub Date: June 15th, 1999
ISBN: 0-8050-6020-0
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1999


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