Buffalo native Ron Irwin has written a crafty inside joke into his new novel, “Flat Water Tuesday.”
The main character, Rob Carrey, who comes from a working-class home, parlays his talent as a rower into a scholarship at an upper-crust boarding school and a chance at an Ivy League education.
Carrey developed that talent sculling on the channels and rivers of his hometown, Niccalsetti.
Say that out loud: Niccalsetti. Nickel City.
Although Irwin has taken some liberties with geography and other minor details, Nickel City is unmistakably Buffalo, and the Black Rock Rowing Club is the place he learned to row in the mid-1980s, the West Side Rowing Club.
Why not just call Carrey’s hometown Buffalo? Irwin, in an interview during a visit to Buffalo from his home in South Africa, said he has a good reason. “Some bad things happen to the main character, and I didn’t want people to think that I was busting on Buffalo, that I was just one more person saying mean things about the city, because I love Buffalo. And the main character learns enough in Buffalo to prevail, and to hold on to his integrity.”
Also, said Irwin, “The actual geography of my city is a little bit different from Buffalo, and I didn’t want people writing to my editor and saying, ‘He doesn’t know Buffalo, there’s no River Road.’ It was just easier from a fictional perspective to change a few things.”
But he changed the name of Carrey’s hometown to a reference that any Western New Yorker would get. “Anyone in Buffalo would know Niccalsetti is Nickel City and get the joke,” he said. ”But anyone outside of Buffalo wouldn’t.”
“Flat Water Tuesday,” Irwin’s first novel, published last month, is the July selection of The Buffalo News Book Club.
The textured, evocative novel starts in the present, when Carrey, a documentary filmmaker, receives a letter from a man who rowed with him in the four-oared scull at their boarding school 15 years earlier.
Carrey is living through an excruciating week. His relationship with the love of his life, Carolyn Smythe, a tall, cool blond video editor who is also his business partner, is ending. The book swivels smoothly from the present, in which Carrey fights to hold on to Carolyn, to 15 years earlier, when Carrey begins a year of rowing at The Fenton School that will culminate in a vital race against the school’s rival.
Irwin, who went to teach in Soweto after graduating from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1992, is from a family with deep Buffalo roots. His grandfather, Robert Irwin, was a doctor at Children’s Hospital. He is the son of Robert J.A. Irwin, a banker with Niagara Share who was also on the board of M&T, and Donna Irwin, who died in February. Irwin has been married to Jacqueline for 13 years. He is the father of Sarah, 10; Emma, 9; and Tyler, 15, who lives in Buffalo with his mother.
Irwin started high school at Nichols, but clashed with the school administration in his freshman year when he became immersed in rowing at the West Side Rowing Club. He visited the club after seeing rowers on the Niagara River near the Peace Bridge. There he met coach Jerry Jacobi and saw two boys his age row. “It absolutely hooked me,” Irwin said. “I could not believe the speed and the grace and the elegance of it, being out there on the water in the early morning.”
To clear time for rowing, which he did “mornings, after school, weekends,” Irwin quit the sports he was playing at Nichols, which at the time had no rowing program and did not support his involvement.
“I was getting into a lot of trouble,” he said. “I wasn’t doing well academically, the school wanted me to come back onto its teams, and rowing was the one anchor of my life. I probably would have had a great time rowing at West Side if Nichols had supported it. But it was too much work to constantly be negotiating about it. It was easier to go to boarding school, where rowing was a recognized sport.”
The family settled on Kent School in Connecticut, whose physical layout resembles Irwin’s fictional school of Fenton. At Kent, Irwin was surprised to learn that rowing was the top sport. “They had 100 years of tradition, the rowers were treated like gods,” he said. “Because I could row, I was immediately taken in by the tribe of rowers, and my grades shot up. I loved it, and I knew I would write a novel about it.”
In 1992, he wrote that novel, about “a kid from a tough town learning how to navigate the world of rowing and boarding school.” He found a literary agent who shopped the book around and received 27 rejections from publishers. He rewrote the book, adding a love story, and it was sent around again. “Sure enough, 27 more rejections,” he said. Irwin then put the work aside, focusing on graduate school, building a house and teaching at the University of Cape Town, where he has worked since 1999.
The book lay dormant until 2011, when, shaken by the death of his friend and colleague, poet Stephen Watson, at age 57, Irwin opened up the old file. This time he didn’t say anything to anyone, including his wife.
He was driving to work one day when he realized that what he thought was a second novel, “about a man trying to hold on to the love of his life, who is leaving him due to an error he’s made” was actually part of what would become “Flat Water Tuesday.”
“So I began the story of Carolyn and Rob, and it becomes this intense love story and a story about one week in the life of a man when the past has suddenly come crowding into his very tumultuous present.”
This time, the stars aligned for Irwin. To his surprise, as he was finishing the rewrite, a few of his crew teammates, back at Kent for their old coach’s funeral, called him to ask about the novel they had heard he’d been writing. And an editor for St. Martin’s Press, with whom he had worked on some projects, contacted him to say she was coming to Cape Town. The two had lunch together, and soon he had a contract.
“It’s been interesting to work on a novel in the dark for so long, and when it finally sees the light it gets such a great reception,” said Irwin. The book received a starred review in Kirkus Reviews, which called it “an elegy to love and loss and reconciliation,” and praise from novelist J.M. Coetzee, who wrote that Irwin’s hero “is not only a prodigious oarsman but the lover of two memorably realized women.”
A copy of the book has been passed around at the West Side Rowing Club and enjoyed by everyone who has read it. “I think it’s a very interesting story, very readable,” said Paul Kolkmeyer, president of the club. “If an individual has any ties to rowing, that makes it that much more interesting. You don’t want to put it down.”
Flat Water Tuesday
by Ron Irwin
St. Martin’s Press
353 pages, $24.99.
St. Martin’s Press has provided The Buffalo News Book Club with several copies of “Flat Water Tuesday,” which Ron Irwin signed, to be given away to readers. To be considered for a copy, please send a letter to Book Club, The Buffalo News, One News Plaza, Buffalo, N.Y., 14240, or an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and explain why you would like a copy. Include your mailing address.