Sea of Troubles (a novel)
William Bateson Rue, author
Set in the mid 1970s, Sea of Troubles is the coming of age story of CHRIS BROOKS. Chris is 13, the youngest child in his family. His father, JOHN BROOKS, has been wiped out financially and his parents have been forced to sell their palatial Fifth Avenue apartment (and much of their valuables) and move into a small, modestly appointed house in Derring Harbor, Long Island. His father is an alcoholic and his parents’ marriage is falling apart. His family’s one remaining finger-hold to old New York WASP society is their connection with the highly selective, socially prestigious St. James School, an elite New Hampshire prep school. Chris’s older brother is JACK BROOKS, an SJS legend and Vietnam war hero. Chris is absolutely determined to get in to SJS, to follow in his brother, father and grandfather’s footsteps, and once there to prove himself worthy of this legacy. He applies to SJS and is accepted, albeit provisionally. ARCHER FITZGORE, his English teacher and mentor, warns him not to go to there, urges him to wait a year, apply to some different schools. After a party graduation night, Chris is bullied into getting drunk and is then sexually molested by a childhood friend (HANK BECKWITH). Beckwith vows not to tell anyone. Chris flies out to Alert Bay, British Columbia to spend a month with his older sister (LIZ BROOKS), who teaches on the island’s Kwaikutl reservation. There he meets IRENE HUNT, a 15 year old student of Liz’s. Sharing an interest in science fiction, they become friends. She introduces him to oolikan oil (an intensely pungent substance made from fermented fish). For his birthday, Liz gives him a small Panasonic tape recorder and suggests that instead of writing letters, they exchange cassette tapes. Meanwhile, UNCLE NED (his mother BETSY BROOKS’ older brother) is dying of emphysema. Ned lets him in on his father’s family secret: they are Jewish (“Do you even know what your real surname is? It certainly isn’t Brooks!”) Near the end of the summer, Chris is beaten up at a country club dance by a local thug (DAVID HUANG). The following morning at a private sit-down, Huang lies, claims Chris had been drunk and had called him a “chink”. Chris’s mother believes Huang. Chris begs his parents to go to the police but his mother refuses, not wanting to suffer any further embarrassment. When Chris arrives at St. James, he finds he will be living in Hellmuth, the domain of the pedophiliac housemaster, STEVEN ‘DOC’ GROOMS and his unofficial “eyes and ears”, the reviled prefect JOHN SHANKS. Grooms, who knew (and had taken a highly prurient interest in) Jack a decade earlier, takes an immediate and intense interest in Chris. Chris struggles in the school’s brutally Darwinian sink-or-swim environment. He befriends JIM WHEELWRIGHT, a kid on full scholarship who lives in the room next to his. Everything seems to come so easily to Jim: he is an outstanding student and a star athlete. He is in Chris’s words “a natural”; reminds Chris of his older brother. Caving in to peer pressure and a desire to be cool, Chris takes up smoking. One afternoon, Jim leads him on a hike out to the remotest edge of the enormous campus and shows him a small cabin he built the previous summer. He refers to it as his “fortress of solitude” and swears Chris to complete secrecy. Parents Weekend, a group of older students led by ED DEKK show up at his room to “corrupt him”. He reluctantly agrees to be led to the basement of another dorm, where he is ceremoniously ‘coronated’ in the ‘acid chair’ and ordered to take a bong hit (“Time to get this newbie wasted!”). He complies, only to find that the marijuana has been laced with the mold aspergillis, which sends him on a very powerful, and damaging bad trip. Grooms finds a pile of cigarette butts outside his window and confronts him, accuses him of “being duplistic”; demands to know if he isn’t “hiding any other secrets”. Because of the problems on the Dark Globe (a novel) by William Rue Synopsis -1- home front, Chris chooses to stay at SJS over Thanksgiving break. During the traditional ‘crawl’, a casual long distance jog around campus, Chris encounters JENNIFER NEWLIN, a fellow 3rd former he has a mad crush on. Jennifer has sprained her ankle badly and he helps her get back to the infirmary. Winter is setting in fast. Chris writes a poem about Jim’s cabin and their magical afternoon spent hunting grouse in the woods, and posts it on his door. Grooms confronts him about the poem, and Chris assures him it is all completely “metaphorical”. Within days, the cabin is discovered (along with the shotgun Jim kept there) and Jim is expelled. Chris feels responsible. Barely passing his Latin final, Chris fails to make the honor roll and punches out a window, cuts his hand badly, a wound that requires eight stitches. The rumor swirling about campus is that he tried, and failed, to commit suicide. Grooms invites Chris up to his apartment to discuss the incident. Chris breaks down in tears and Grooms caresses his wounded hand, then attempts to kiss him and Chris bolts from the apartment. Chris falls under the spell of another classmate, MICHAEL BAGOLY: the rebellious and iconoclastic son of a famous Hollywood film producer. Bagoly is hell-bent on “making it hot for them”. Forced (by his manipulative father) into attending SJS, he absolutely hates the school, referring to it as “this goyish hell-hole”, and plans to “go out in a blaze of glory”. The brilliant and highly intuitive Bagoly senses that Chris is hiding something, that he has some dark secret. “The Truth will set you free,” he tells him. They become close friends. Bagoly, ever the prankster, has been defacing the school sign, replacing its Latin motto, “Here Boys Enter to Become Men”, with far more revealing (often obscene) and truthful mottos. Throughout this time, Grooms and Chris continue their game of cat and mouse. Grooms, aware of his budding friendship with Bagoly, is certain he is breaking rules beyond just the no smoking rule; continuously asks if he is “being duplistic”; seems dead-set on either busting him, or seducing him. Chris falls into a vicious cycle. His grades (and personal hygiene) further deteriorate as his depression and drug use intensify. He is at odds with his intramural hockey coach, MIDGE SPENCE (aka ‘The Toad’), who knew Chris’s father when they were students together, bullies Chris mercilessly, disparagingly refers to him as the son of ‘Rabbi Brooks’ (“I certainly hope you’re a better puck handler than your father!”). ALAN GILES borrows and then ‘loses’ Chris’s ice skates and he can’t afford to buy new ones, adding further vexation to his already problematic relationship with The Toad. Bagoly becomes Chris’s avenging angel, and pulls a false flag operation that leads to Giles’ expulsion. Chris is approached by two classmates DAVID GREAVES and MATT BITTEL who aspire to become the school’s top-tier drug dealers. Knowing he needs money, they ask Chris to be their ‘mule’, to carry two kilos of marijuana from Boston back to campus, and he agrees. His payment, four ounces of weed (which he has arranged to sell to Bagoly, the proceeds going toward a new pair of skates), is stolen from his room by hall-mate PAUL HARPER. Without recourse (unable to report it stolen, obviously), Bagoly and he brainstorm, realize that Harper has hidden the pot in his gym locker, and they arrange to have the Concord police raid the gym and find it. Harper is arrested and expelled on the spot. Grooms steps up his rhetoric; his veiled threats and sexual overtures toward Chris become increasingly aggressive, almost blatant. Bagoly confesses to Chris that he is in the process of making a huge batch of LSD-25 (“Absolutely pure. We are talking Millbrook and Merry Pranksters here.”) and that he plans to dose the entire school, to aid in an “evolution of unified consciousness...and collective mind expansion.” This, Dark Globe (a novel) by William Rue Synopsis -2- he vows, will be his coup de grace, his parting “blaze of glory”. One night during a feed in the rectory, Bagoly steals an antique clock (“the very pulse of this great school”) from the office of the school’s rector, PHILIP DINWIDDIE. He and Chris form the impromptu ‘Wooden Shoe Brigade’ and inform the administration that they will return the clock once they have agreed to grant the entire school--including all staff and teachers--a surprise holiday: the ‘St. Alphonzo’s Pancake Breakfast’. Their demands are met, but on the night they are supposed to return the clock, the increasingly unhinged Bagoly drops it from a bridge and it shatters on the ice below. They return the clock in pieces, and the next morning a furious Dinwiddie cancels all further holidays and weekend dances until the perpetrators are identified and expelled. Bagoly finishes concocting the LSD. While visiting Hellmuth, Bagoly is confronted by Shanks, who orders him to empty out his suspicious backpack; while rifling through its contents, he doses himself by roughly handling an exposed blotter sheet laced with pure LSD. That night, Shanks totally flips his wig and is shipped home for an indefinite period of “rest and psychiatric observation.” The accepted story is he suffered a catastrophic nervous breakdown. Presidents weekend Chris spends in Massachusetts visiting his brother Jack. Jack calls him out on his irresponsible behavior (smoking pot, losing skates, bouncing checks, almost flunking three of his five classes). One night ‘Doc’ Grooms corners Chris and pats him down and discovers a small bag of pot. Grooms, in exchange for silence, takes him back to his apartment, seduces him. After it is over, Chris returns to his room in a catatonic state and with a pair of paste scissors, shears off all his hair. Bagoly doses a vat of beef stew the night (unbeknownst to him) the meal is to be donated to Maple Grove, a local sanitarium. In a blind panic he dumps the laced stew, saving the patients. He is busted by ZIP SKINNER, faces certain expulsion. Chris confides what occurred the summer before with Beckwith and Huang, and about what happened a week earlier with Grooms. Bagoly isn’t fazed (“Chris, you know me: I am not at all judgmental.”) and urges him to carry on, “to take action and to nail these creeps.” His parting words to Chris are: “you’re on your own now. I just can’t help you anymore.” He is last seen crossing a great frozen lake during a blizzard, the ice cracking beneath his feet. It is believed that he has fallen through the ice and drowned. During Easter break, Chris invites Matt Bittel to spend a week with his family on Long Island where he introduces Matt to Maddie Sward. Through their Boston connection, Matt and David Greaves have, over the past few months, become the school’s primary pot dealers, with plans of expanding their business. (“You realize SJS is full of coke-heads, don’t you?” Matt tells him.) Chris travels with his mother to Antigua, as guests of family friends, PATSY AND DAVY HARRIS. At the hotel he runs into classmate Jennifer Newlin, who is there with her Uncle, working as an au pair for her young cousins. She and Chris have a few drinks together, let their guards down, open up to each other. Over the course of a few days, his already mad crush on her intensifies. HILARY KERNS, a 17 year old from Far Hills, N.J. is also staying there at the same hotel. Believing Chris to be a senior, she pursues him. She is also very much taken with the fact that he goes to St. James’. Hilary is a social climber, and is utterly obsessed with “preppiness”, fetishizes any and all talismans of haute WASP culture. Jennifer leaves, her Uncle and family are sailing for Puerto Rico, and Chris and Hilary initiate a brief ‘shipboard romance’. Confused about his sexual identity (and, of course, not a little curious), Chris is eager to pursue this affair, though his attraction to the “only half-way pretty and superficial” Hilary is purely physical. The night before Dark Globe (a novel) by William Rue Synopsis -3- she is to leave, Hilary informs Chris that if he were to ever obtain a pair of authentic Nantucket Red pants, pretty much “anything is possible. Anything.” The next morning, Mr. Harris tells him he has a pair he never wears and gives them to him, over his mother’s protestations. Bagoly’s overcoat was discovered on the lake’s shore, but there is still no sign of him. The Concord Police have been dragging the lake for about a week, since the ice melted. Chris tries out for JV lacrosse, coached by Zip Skinner. Zip reminds Chris that he coached his brother Jack, that Jack was an outstanding athlete, “you think you have it in you, Rook? You think you’re as good as he is?” Word has spread of Chris’s liaison with an older woman (“Your stock around this place has risen mightily, Brooks,” Greaves informs him.). When Shanks returns--hair long, beard as wild and overgrown as a mad prophet’s--he chooses to spend his final semester living in a tree and teaching himself to play the Peruvian flute. Chris submits a poem for MS. CHANDLER’s advanced writing workshop and is accepted. He makes the JV lacrosse squad as a third string lineman. One afternoon after practice, he invites Jennifer to ditch their last class and go swimming, and though initially reluctant, she agrees. He tries to kiss her, and is rebuffed. Hilary invites him to attend a dance at her school and he goes. He almost (but not quite) loses his virginity. Ed Dekk gets castrated when he jumps off one of the bridges; takes a medical leave of absence. Chris receives a cryptic letter postmarked Montreal. (Its only message: “haha, hoho, and hehe!”) It is apparently from Bagoly, indicates that he is, indeed, alive and well. Hilary shows up unexpectedly to watch him play lacrosse and she meets Grooms. (“That guy is very creepy. He doesn’t, like, have a thing for you, does he?” she asks him. “Does he?”) At the first meeting of the writing group, Jennifer shares a story very similar to the adventure she had with Chris the week before. Shanks’ mad ravings, atonal pipings, and frequent ‘pecker wags’ have become a big problem. He has to be tranquilized and straitjacketed and shipped off to Maple Grove. Reading the New York Times one morning, Chris spots an article: David Huang has been arrested for shooting several students with a pellet gun, and for possession of dynamite. Chris calls his mother and tells her to read the story; “now do you believe me?” He invites Jennifer along on another adventure, to visit the ruins of Jim Wheelwright’s cabin. There, he finally confesses his pent-up feelings for her. Matt and Greaves get busted and are expelled. Before he leaves, Matt falls by Chris’s room and asks him ‘to pond’ a brick of hashish that he can’t take with him on the plane, can’t leave in his room, or flush down the toilet. On his way to dinner, Chris hurls it out over the pond. That night he cruises after hours and visits Jennifer in her room. They kiss and she grills him about his relationship with Hilary. He spends the night with her, but they don’t have sex, agree to wait. At five the next morning, he returns to find Grooms waiting for him. Grooms witnessed him ponding the hashish, has it in his possession. Chris faces certain expulsion. Grooms intimates that he is willing to let it pass, but for a price. With the tape recorder Liz gave him (and which he keeps ready in case of a situation like this), Chris secretly records Grooms admitting he molested him (and, it is darkly hinted, other SJS students). Chris goes to the rector and hands over the tape. He has brought a jar of the oolikan oil with him, swirls the putrescent liquid absently (will he spill the jar and permanently contaminate the rectory, the heart of the school?) He informs him there are more copies and that he won’t hesitate to go public. The rector promises to listen to the tape and to take swift and appropriate action. Chris withdraws from SJS. Just as his train pulls away from the station, he realizes his troubles are “only just beginning”.