Cover image for Boy in the water : a novel
Boy in the water : a novel
Dobyns, Stephen, 1941-
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First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Metropolitan Books, 1999.
Physical Description:
406 pages ; 24 cm
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A masterful psychological thriller, from the author of The Church of Dead Girls.

Another bucolic fall in northern New Hampshire, and the semester is under way at Bishop's Hill Academy. But this year the start of school has been less than tranquil. The new headmaster, Jim Hawthorne, has liberal ideas that the staff find far from welcome. He's also determined to do something about the long "tradition" of permanent loans to faculty of shovels, saws, even cars, from the school's supplies. Eloquent as he is on the subject of honor, rumor has it he's only taken this job to escape his past. And Hawthorne isn't the only uneasy newcomer. There's Jessica, a former stripper at fifteen, and Frank LeBrun, a replacement cook who's a bit too quick with a dirty joke. All three have secrets to conceal, memories to suppress.

Serene on the surface, the ivy-clad, tree-lined campus gives few clues to the school's history of special privileges, petty corruptions, and hidden allegiances. But as autumn advances, the affable smiles and pretenses of virtue wear thin. And as winter closes in, students, teachers, and staff get an education in savagery and murder. With his customary uncanny awareness of the intricacies of human nature, the acclaimed author of The Church of Dead Girls once again probes the daily life of an ordinary community to reveal the depths of good and evil.

Author Notes

Stephen Dobyns was born on February 19, 1941, in Orange, New Jersey. He received a B.A. in 1964 from Wayne State University and an M.F.A. in 1967 from the University of Iowa. He was a reporter for the Detroit News and has taught at several colleges and universities including Sarah Lawrence College, Warren Wilson College, the University of Iowa, Syracuse University, and Boston University.

He has written about ten books of poetry and twenty novels. His books of poetry include Concurring Beasts, Heat Death, Common Carnage, Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides, The Porcupine's Kisses, and Winter's Journey. He has received several awards including the Melville Cane Award for Cemetery Nights. His novels include Saratoga Haunting, The Wrestler's Cruel Study, Saratoga Fleshpot, The Church of Dead Girls, and Boy in the Water. He is also the author of a collection of short stories, Eating Naked and a book of essays, Best Words, Best Order.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

When Dobyns isn't writing poetry or his comic Charlie Bradshaw mysteries, he produces first-rate psychological thrillers. This one adds elements of gothic horror to the mix, and the result is absolutely compelling. When psychologist Jim Hawthorne takes the job of headmaster at a private school in remote New Hampshire, he is on the run from himself. Grieving and guilt-ridden after the deaths of his wife and daughter in a fire set by one of his patients, Hawthorne attempts to throw himself into his new job, but the task of setting the school on a new course leads to further tragedy. Simmering resentments among the faculty erupt into violence, and Hawthorne senses a deeper plot that may involve two other newcomers: a 15-year-old former stripper and a joke-telling cook. Dobyns tightens the screws on all these plot elements with great skill, using dramatic irony in place of traditional suspense: we know who the killer is from the outset, but we agonize over the hero's failure to see what we see. The climax, a tour de force set piece in which the school is cut off from civilization by a blizzard, evokes the film High Noon, as the desperate Hawthorne, refused help by his colleagues, is forced to face a madman with only a knife and a flashlight. What elevates this multidimensional novel above mere thriller--Mr. Chips meets Straw Dogsis the way Dobyns intermingles his hero's personal crisis with the evil he faces at the school: a psychologist, a man "who believed too much in talk," forced to confront a horror beyond words. Like the best thriller writers, Dobyns not only scares us with what is out there but also with what we find (or don't find) within ourselves. --Bill Ott

Library Journal Review

Set in the New Hampshire mountains at remote Bishop's Hill Academy, Dobyns's new novel succeeds, though it still does not top The Church of Dead Girls (LJ 5/1/97). As usual, Dobyns fleshes out mundane, real-world characters. Bishop's Hill is a financially shaky institution known as a dumping ground for troubled teenagers. New headmaster Jim Hawthorne carries a motherlode of guilt and conflict from the past: detained by a tryst at his previous prestigious post, he failed to save his wife and daughter from a fire set by a student jealous for his attention. Friend Kevin Kreuger tries to convince Hawthorne that he is punishing himself by taking the job, but Hawthorne perseveres. Deliberate attempts to undermine Hawthorne's success at Bishop's Hill, followed by a series of murders, overshadow his improvements to the school. In time, he discovers his enemies and unravels a trail of corruption while doing his utmost to save lost souls like Jessica Weaver, a former stripper at 15. Recommended for all mystery collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/99.]ÄMichelle Foyt, Fairfield P.L., CT (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Burnt flesh newly whole, pink skin puckered on the back of the hand, a moonscape of scar tissue extending from the sleeve of a gray sport coat. In the correctness of dress, only the scars were out of place. As he reached out to shake the hand, Kevin Krueger tried not to hesitate. This was his friend, Jim Hawthorne, his former teacher, a man he loved, a man to whom he owed his career.     "Been a long time," said Krueger, squeezing the hand. "It's great to see you."     Bright morning light cut a yellow wedge across the office floor, the northern light of a fall day under a blue New Hampshire sky. The gold dome of the state capitol seemed to blaze under its regard.     His visitor noticed Krueger glancing at the scars. He gripped Krueger's hand firmly, as if to show he had entirely healed. "We talked on the phone."     "But I haven't seen you for nearly a year."     "Since before the fire." Hawthorne let go of Krueger's hand and stepped back. He was tanned and muscular, as if he spent part of every day at the health club, which was probably true. After all, he had been recuperating. Or perhaps it was that California glow. His hair was lighter than Krueger remembered, nearly blond and finely textured. Then, with shock, Krueger realized that Hawthorne's hair must have been burned off.     "You look well," said Krueger, hesitating whether to remain standing or sit down.     Hawthorne considered this estimate with amusement. "My doctor says I've been putting myself back together, but it feels like loafing. Now I want to return to work."     Renovation was going on in one of the state offices down the hall and the sound of an electric saw shrilled through the air. The work had begun on September 2 and after nearly three weeks Krueger still hadn't gotten used to the noise. He noticed Hawthorne's jaw tense, then relax.     "But not in your field?" said Krueger, turning to shut the window behind him.     "It's still school administration."     "Another sort of school ..." Krueger let the remark hang. He didn't wish to bring up the fire, but that meant their talk stayed on a level of superficiality that he had never experienced with his friend. Was he afraid Hawthorne might cry? Or he himself would? After all, he had baby-sat for Lily at least half a dozen times in Boston. In his mind's eye, he could see her sparkling blond curls.     Krueger had met Hawthorne seven years earlier at Boston University, when he had begun graduate study in clinical psychology. Jim Hawthorne had been his adviser as well as teacher. Hawthorne was now thirty-seven. His birthday was in February, the same month as the fire. Only six years separated them and the two men had made many trips to various agencies and residential treatment programs throughout the state, especially to Ingram House in the Berkshires, where Krueger had done the work that resulted in his thesis. And when Krueger had said he was interested in a job with the New Hampshire Department of Education, Hawthorne hadn't protested but had made the necessary calls from San Diego, even though he would rather have seen Krueger working in mental health. Yet if Krueger had taken a position someplace else, Hawthorne wouldn't have been here this morning and Krueger wouldn't have had the opportunity now to assist him.     "I've been on the phone with members of the board," said Hawthorne, "and they've sent me cartons of papers. Without actually visiting the place I don't see how I could be any more prepared."     "All this in six weeks?"     "They want someone in residence before the semester is much advanced. Classes began two weeks ago. And I was ready to make the change." He looked uncertain for a moment. "You know, it's time to make a fresh beginning."     Krueger wondered what Hawthorne meant by being "ready." His dark gray jacket, blue slacks, white shirt, even his tie looked new. But of course his other clothes had been destroyed. In fact, in terms of property, he'd probably lost everything. But what had he lost of the rest--of his essential self, what people outside their profession might call the soul?     "There's no real town nearby, at least for twenty miles," said Krueger.     "I like the country. Perhaps I'll learn to ski."     "You could get stuck after the snow begins. The roads can completely shut down."     "You're not very optimistic." "These places, they develop their own ways of doing things. They get terribly ingrown: cousins and high school chums working together for years ..." "That's probably why the board insisted on an outside hiring."     "Of course, of course." Glancing at Hawthorne's hand, Krueger saw how the scar tissue extended up the backs of his fingers, how the little finger had no nail but ended in a sort of pink fragility.     Hawthorne was thin and handsome and somewhat gaunt, with dark indentations beneath his cheekbones. He wore glasses with pewter frames that kept sliding down his nose which he pushed back up with his thumb. Krueger was a few inches shorter and stocky, with a receding hairline, bushy eyebrows and a thick mustache, as if these bristling growths were soft bumpers between him and the world. These were men of similar backgrounds who had gone to similar New England schools and universities. They read the same magazines and newspapers, the same books. They felt at home in the same fashionable sections of Boston or San Diego, New York or San Francisco. But one had suffered great tragedy and the other kept trying to imagine it. Krueger had felt inadequate to the task of helping his friend. He had written. They talked on the phone. Hawthorne's life had taken a turn impossible to anticipate and Krueger had been struck with wonder and compassion.     "It's hardly your sort of school," he said.     Hawthorne suddenly grinned. "On the cutting edge of failure, much like myself."     "You're a clinical psychologist with a tremendous reputation."     "The school claims to specialize in youngsters with special needs."     "You know what that means. Highly structured environment, empathy development, special needs--it's code. The school's just a dumping ground."     "It's been around a long time."     "In name only. Even ten years ago it was different. They started that business about special needs when enrollment began to fall. Their accreditation hangs by a thread."     "You think I can't save it?" There was a hint of something in Hawthorne's voice. Not anger or bravado. Perhaps it was no more than a touch of metal.     "I think it's an impossible task. Bishop's Hill needs an endowment, a new student body, a new faculty, and a new physical plant. They'd do better to tear the place down and start over."     "The board's given me complete control."     "But what about the staff? Do they know you're coming?"     "They were notified on Thursday."     Krueger almost smiled. "They must be jumping. And why did you decide against a residential treatment center?"     "Maybe I need a break." Hawthorne sat down at last, perching on the edge of the chair. Glancing around the office, his eyes settled on the photograph of Krueger's wife, Deborah, and their son and daughter. He looked away. "Maybe I just don't want that work anymore."     Krueger began to speak quickly. "I've been hearing about Bishop's Hill ever since I came here. The faculty keeps leaving, many are barely qualified. Parents complain. The health department came within an inch of closing down their kitchen. And there were other stories, allegations even."     "That's why they were eager to have me."     "What happened to the previous headmaster?"     "He's been gone several years. They had a sort of halfhearted search but it was only this summer that they decided to make a new commitment."     "It was either that or sell out to the Seventh-Day Adventists." Krueger rubbed the back of his neck. He hoped he wasn't getting another of his headaches. Hawthorne had been one of the preeminent administrators at one of the preeminent treatment centers in the country. He could probably go anywhere. Instead, he was choosing a fifth-rate institution on the verge of closing. "You'll be buried there," added Krueger.     Hawthorne seemed not to have heard. "What sort of person is the acting head?"     "Fritz Skander? He's the bursar. I've talked to him on the phone. Well-spoken, kind of upbeat and ironic at the same time. He was hired to teach math, then worked his way into the management end of things. He's been acting head for two or three years. Personally, I thought he'd be the one to get the job."     "He has no background in psychology or administration. He has the ability, but I have the résumé."     "You have tremendous ability. What about your research, your writing?"     Hawthorne began to speak, then turned away. A bony, angular face with a jutting chin--the morning light emphasized every wrinkle that had appeared since Krueger had seen him last, and again he recalled Lily's glorious curls. The mother, too, had been blond.     "Skander will be associate headmaster and continue as bursar, as well as teaching a section of geometry. The board chairman kept saying how everyone would have to bite the bullet. Otherwise, there's a psychologist at the school, a couple of mental health counselors. I've looked over the records of about half the students. I'd like to hire another psychologist as soon as possible."     "And the physical plant?"     "Serviceable but failing. There's a fund drive to replace the roof of the main building, Emerson Hall. Several of the dormitory cottages need substantial work."     Hawthorne ticked off various problems on his fingertips: a crack in a boiler, the need to replace a stove in the kitchen, faulty wiring in one of the dorms, cracking plaster. Krueger asked questions and his friend responded. Despite the difficulties, Hawthorne was eager to face the challenge. It was a new undertaking to fill his mind. As he said, a new beginning.     Krueger had heard from Hawthorne two days earlier after a silence of six weeks. He was leaving San Diego and would fly into Logan Sunday evening, then stay at a hotel and drive up to Concord on Monday. In his initial surprise, the only detail Krueger found odd was that Hawthorne would stay in a hotel. He probably had dozens of friends in the Boston area. It was only after Krueger hung up that he began to wonder about Hawthorne's whole enterprise.     "Why's Jim coming to New Hampshire?" Deborah had asked.     "He's taking a job at Bishop's Hill. Headmaster." Saying those words, Krueger had thought they sounded crazy, as if his friend had taken a job flipping burgers. Even though it was the weekend, Krueger made some calls. Maybe something had changed at Bishop's Hill in the past few months. But nothing Krueger heard had encouraged him and what had started out sounding insane only appeared more so. Perhaps, he thought, Hawthorne was planning a book and the school was connected with some new area of research.     Now, talking to Hawthorne, Krueger felt in no way persuaded, especially since the research and writing appeared to be a dead issue. But even if Hawthorne's only intention was to keep the school afloat and even if the board had committed itself to a new financial effort, it seemed too little too late. Krueger rubbed the back of his neck and wondered where he had put his aspirin.     "Maybe you can do it," said Krueger, trying to be optimistic. "It's astonishing that the place is still open. And of course it's expensive. Dumping grounds usually are."     Hawthorne rose from his chair and walked to the window. Sunlight illuminated the white bark of the birches on the far side of the parking lot. Hawthorne looked both ready and stoical, like a man about to lift something heavy. But mixed with his stoicism was sorrow. Not that his brow was creased or his shoulders were bent; he seemed perfectly calm. Indeed, in the strong chin, Krueger believed that others would see determination. But Krueger couldn't help but imagine the awfulness of Hawthorne's memories. If it had been his own wife and child, he didn't see how he could live.     Hawthorne walked over and squeezed Krueger's shoulder. "Jesus, it's great to see you. You remember those basketball games we used to have? Maybe we can do that again."     The warmth of his smile was a great reassurance. Krueger tried to speak but could only nod a little foolishly.     "I wanted to come out to California in February."     "I couldn't have seen anyone. I was dead. Dead inside at least."     "Even so ..." Krueger tugged at his mustache.     Hawthorne turned again to the window. "What other problems do you think I'll have at Bishop's Hill?"     With relief Krueger returned to the subject that, though bleak, was at least precise. "Your presence should do wonders for morale. I'll bet even the non-psychology types have been reading your articles. You'll have to be firm, of course. I'm sure they've been worried by how things have drifted along. The main thing is the children--teenagers really. They're the ones who've suffered."     "Anything more than educational neglect?" "A tenth grader was arrested for shoplifting in Plymouth in May. Some drunk driving. Marijuana. The school uses a totally antiquated merit system with so many checks resulting in punishment. On the other hand, a new teacher joined the staff in January. I don't think it's an us-against-them scenario. There's even a new cook." "Then what's the problem?"     "I'd like you closer to Concord, where I can see you." Krueger gave a laugh, but it sounded false to his ears. "And it's not your area of expertise."     "You think I won't be able to do it?"     "You're a tremendous administrator."     "That was before."     Krueger turned in his chair. "I'll be frank with you. I don't understand why you want Bishop's Hill. It's a pseudo-prep school for kids who have managed to stay out of agencies or institutions only because their parents have money. It's a sinking ship. I don't know if anybody could fix it and I don't know why you want to."     "I told you, I want to do something different."     "And that's sufficient reason to go to Bishop's Hill? You could go to one of the best places in the country and you're choosing one of the worst. The money must be terrible." Krueger tried to make it a joke, but it didn't sound like a joke.     "I'm not doing it for the money."     "So what are you doing it for?"     "Simple professionalism."     "It'll be like trying to empty Lake Winnipesaukee with a pail."     "Maybe that's what I'm good for right now. Listen, I have to start completely over. Can't you see that the fire was my fault? When this position opened up at Bishop's Hill, I jumped at it."     "You know as well as I do who caused the fire."     Hawthorne ignored him. "If Bishop's Hill doesn't work out, then I'm finished. I don't mean I couldn't get other jobs. lust that this is the last chance I'm giving myself."     The silence that followed was filled with the whine of the saw. Krueger heard his secretary laugh and a door slam. He thought of how far Hawthorne had traveled from Krueger's own life. "You'll spend the night? Deborah'd love to see you. And your namesake, he's already four."     "I'd like to get up there as soon as possible. About how far is it?"     "Two and a half hours door-to-door. The color should be just getting started."     "I had some stuff shipped from San Diego. It'll arrive next week."     "But you'll stay for dinner?"     "Thanks, but I still get tired pretty easily."     Krueger stood up. His chair spun back and hit the wail with a thud. "We need to talk more. Stay for lunch. If I were the one going up there, I think I'd move into it gently."     "You think I'll fuck up, don't you?"     "Of course not, but they've had lots of time to get fixed in their ways." Krueger was aware of not answering the question. What did he know of his friend's mental state? Only that Hawthorne had chosen to bury himself in a backwater, which was itself evidence of eccentricity. Perhaps something worse than eccentricity.     Hawthorne had paused at the door. "As you say, the children come first." It seemed only politeness that was holding him back.     Krueger gave up. The conversation had exhausted him. "Give me a call once you get there. Or I'll call you. You know that my office is at your disposal."     Hawthorne grinned. "It's been a while since I've gone to school."     They shook hands again. This time Krueger kept his eyes away from the scars. He wondered how much was hidden by Hawthorne's clothes, whether his entire body had the shiny delicacy of the wrist. Although Krueger felt guilty, he was comforted by Hawthorne's grip. It seemed evidence of something positive. I'm grasping at straws, he thought.     After he had shut the door, Krueger was struck by something Hawthorne had said. What had he meant by saying the fire was his fault? That kid Carpasso had set the fire. Everyone knew that. The girl sat on the edge of the stage with a cigarette hanging from her lips and stared at her toes in their small, golden thongs. The toenails had just been painted a shade of red called "Passion Juice" and were not entirely dry. They sparkled in the intensity of the spotlights. The girl's back was bent and a strand of peroxided hair fell forward, concealing one side of her face. She picked at a dab of red on her toe and blew smoke from the corner of her mouth. Around her left ankle was a gold chain with a heart, a gift from her father six years earlier.     She seemed alone in the room despite the two dozen men and the waitresses in their skimpy dresses weaving between the tables. A few men clapped as Gypsy, naked and businesslike, walked briskly from the stage to the dressing room, carrying a little blue dress in one hand and a pair of black high heels in the other. She had just finished her number, and briefly there was a kind of silence. Someone whistled shrilly; a chair scraped; the neck of a beer bottle clinked against the rim of a glass.     The music began again. The girl dropped her cigarette and ground it into the tile. By the time she was on her feet she was already into her dance, sashaying up the remaining two steps and across the stage, her eyes focused on the spotlights so everything would be a blur when she looked away. The music was the long disco version of the Stones' "Miss You," and she matched her steps to the staccato precision of the drums and bass, snapping her fingers and lifting her knees so they flashed in the lights. She thought of the music as antique--the song was twenty years old--and she imagined that her parents had once danced to it, her father taking Dolly's hand, then spinning her away.     The girl kept her head raised as she moved to the chrome pole in the middle of the stage. She was the cool one who never let her eyes drift below an imaginary line, as if beneath that line were only fog, like early-morning fog at Rye Beach. When she table-danced, men would often say, "Why don't you look at me?" And sometimes they whined and sometimes they called her "Bitch." She wanted to say, "Fuck you," but she'd just smile as if her thoughts were in exotic places, Zanzibar or Rio de Janeiro. And when the men tucked ten- or twenty-dollar bills under the thin gold chain around her waist, she would stroke their cheeks just once and draw her nails lightly down the stubble on their faces, but she still wouldn't look at them.     Gripping the pole with her right hand, the girl swirled around it with her head back and her nearly white hair streaming behind her. She had pinned it up but, as she spun, her hair came free and she could feel how the men grew attentive, as if her hair's very loosening were a sign of her wildness. The girl focused on the mirrors on the ceiling above the stage, watching the pretty, heavily made-up face of her reflection stare back at her. At one moment she was amazed by her beauty and at the next by what she saw as her ugliness: her lips not enough of this, her nose not enough of that, and the blue of her eyes insufficiently dazzling. She wore a mixture of pastel-colored veils that fluttered in the breeze from a fan at the edge of the stage: a two-piece costume made by an ex-dancer who had gotten fat and now designed costumes for other girls, polyester delicacies whose only function was to be ripped away in a fantasy of sexual abandon. The veils whirled and eddied around her in varying shades of blue, green, and red--pulsings that let the girl imagine herself a multicolored bird of Eastern mythology, beautiful but deadly. The stage was eight feet wide and formed a runway between the tables where the men sat. The dancers called it the meat rack. As the girl spun round the pole, the veils separated and came together, giving glimpses of her tanned body and revealing her small breasts--too small to the girl's mind, small and undeveloped, almost boyish. They embarrassed her, but after all, she was only fifteen. (Continues...) Copyright © 1999 Stephen Dobyns. All rights reserved.