|At the Shores
4 / 5
"For as far back in his consciousness as he could go there had always been three women in his life: his mother, his sister, and his girl. The difference was that Mother and Sister were always the same women, whereas the role of girl had been filled by what seemed like a cast of thousands."
At the Shores is a classic novel of love in America. Set in the Indiana dunes and Chicago, it tells the story of Jerry Engels, an appealing, handsome, middle-class boy, who even in elementary school finds himself forever in love: "He loved the girls in his class, the girls on the block, the maid at home, his sister's friends, some of his mother's friends. . . . He even loved girls he just happened to see out the window of the car." In high school--the renowned University of Chicago Laboratory High School--he strives to make the grades his academically superb sister made and his parents expect, but as the world becomes erotically charged for him, he finds it hard to study. Unlike other boys, who live according to the "approved doctrine that there are other things in the world besides girls--politics, cars, sports, finding out about things and fixing things, and making money"--Jerry cares only about girls. For him, "girls are a kind of blessing. When he saw a girl like Betty Lomax walking through Belfield Hall with a fresh flower tucked into her hair, he felt like kissing her out of gratitude for having bought that flower and put it in her hair." Then, at the end of his junior year, he falls deeply, passionately in love with Rosalind Ingleside, the most beautiful, respected, and wealthy girl in school, and for almost all of one summer Jerry's dream of loving and being loved is fulfilled.
"If I had a class in American Adolescence, I'd teach At the Shores in tandem with The Catcher in the Rye and Growing Up Absurd. This meticulously perceived and modest novel about growing up in America anything but absurd is probably closer to more lives than we might suspect. It does wonders for one's sense of reality."
- Philip Roth
I cannot for the life of me recall why I picked this book up. It was published 35 years ago, and is not widely known. But I was reading something, somewhere that mentioned it and I wanted to check it out. I had to go through my work library consortium to find a copy over at Bard College; it is not available anywhere in my local public library system and wasn’t at my own library. So clearly, I had to do a bit of work to get my hands on a copy! And yet I wish I could recall why I was so eager to do so. I know part of what happened was I thought to myself, “Hmm, this book looks good, and has some good reviews. I am going to put the request into the system because it should take a little while for it to make its way to me.” And that is exactly how things worked out. I received the book after I had forgotten I’d put the order in for it. I took it home, and began reading it, but the book is disappointingly difficult to get into because of the dense typeset and unbroken swaths of text. I honestly think that is part of what took me so long (a month!) to get through this otherwise good book: the author shunned the notion of chapters, which okay, I can work with (let’s not talk about how long the amazing Gravity’s Rainbow is taking me, for instance!). However, the author didn’t even use a line break to separate sections, which I think it just unreasonable. I would go vast chunks of the book without ever encountering a break, and then I’d find several within a few pages of each other. It felt as if there was no rhyme or reason to the choice to use or not use them, either. All of this to say: Rogers really could have used a good editor, which I think could have brought such a gem of a book to a much wider audience, too. It is unfortunate!
Because really, I did like this book. I found myself avoiding reading it because I often faced a long, unbroken chunk and not much time to devote to it, so I would pick something else up in the meantime. However, when I did get a chance to really delve into it, I was easily drawn into Jerry Engels’ world. The very white, very privileged world of a boy growing up in postwar Chicago, which oddly enough is kind of right up my alley (not the privileged part, but the young boy coming of age in the 1950s part). I don’t know why I have such a soft spot for those stories, but I do! In any case, the book revolves around the adolescence of girl-crazy Jerry, who finds himself drawn to females even from a very young age. There were some charming anecdotes from his earlier years, but the book sticks mainly to the story of his seventeenth year, when he falls in love for the first time and also loses his virginity. Since this is the true crux of the story I won’t go too far into it - suffice it to say that one reviewer (I wish I could recall where I saw this) pretty aptly called the book something like “the horny life & times of Jerry Engels.” So yeah, there is a lot of talk of sex, but what do you expect from a teenaged boy? If you can get past that part, the book definitely does move on. Taken as a whole (and not getting too distracted or annoyed by Jerry’s incessant thinking about sex for a good few score of pages), I can see why some have compared Jerry Engels to Holden Caulfield. Both boys learn some hard truths about life and grow to see things from a more mature viewpoint. (I don’t think that is a spoiler for this book.) I liked the open-ended way Rogers left things with Jerry, as well.
The water theme in the book intrigues me enough that I want to write briefly on that, as well. I thought it was interesting how the book’s title refers to the families’ summer homes on the shores of Lake Michigan, as well as how Jerry is kind of on the brink of something big and life-changing. Additionally, water plays a huge role in the book, both in moving the story along and, ultimately, ending it. Water being such a symbol of cleansing and renewing makes me think that this allusion wasn’t a mistake. I’ll have to think more on this.
And lastly, I wanted to speak a bit on the different types of women Jerry interacts with in his life, since women are of tantamount importance to him. He has a very permissive sister, a sympathetic but largely absent (in the book, not in his life) mother, an uncertain girlfriend, a bossy female friend who is like a sister, another female friend he doesn’t know as well who is portrayed as somewhat slutty, and then there is the actual prostitute...they all seem somewhat typecast (and by the way, was that a lesbian couple thrown in there casually at the end of the book?), but all so interestingly typecast. It makes me wonder about what their characters were supposed to represent - maybe it’s some sort of Freudian Madonna-Whore Complex thing? Ach, this is all too much for me to contemplate thoroughly right now…it is time for me to go to bed. So goodnight, Dear Reader!
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