Teen truths in 'Paper Covers Rock'

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 20, 2011

“Paper Covers Rock,” by Jenny Hubbard. Delacorte Press, N.Y. 2011. 192 pp. $16.99.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
SALISBURY — Jenny Hubbard is having a busy year. She’s the writer-in-residence for the Center for Faith & the Arts, which is producing her play, “Pinocchio’s Sister.” And now, her first novel.
“Paper Covers Rock” is classified as a young adult novel, but should appeal equally to adults, with its insider look at a boy’s boarding school.
The tension here is between the truth and the code of silence, and Hubbard creates a believable and compelling conflict for her main character, Alex Stromm.
Stromm is a complex and intelligent teen, a poet with promise who recognizes he is a “Good, Solid Kid,” at the Birch School. Although he is capable of clear, independent thinking, he is also a teenager, and the overarching goal of any teenager, girl or boy, is to fit in.
When Alex’s friend, Thomas, drowns after jumping from a rock into a river on the school property, the Code of Silence rises faster than Thomas’ last breath escapes.
Alex is enveloped in guilt and eager to get rid of the secret of the accident, but there’s too much pressure. One boy gets the brunt of the blame and is expelled. Alex’s friend, Glenn, begins “The Plan” to save them both from the same fate.
Alex starts a diary, calling himself “Is Male,” with apologies to Herman Melville. He hides the diary behind a copy of “Moby Dick” in the school library.
He begins with this, which is an apt description for what is about to happen: “…I may have to steal a few words to tell the story that is about to be told, that is in the middle of being told, that will never stop being told. Such is the nature of guilt; such is the nature of truth. But it is the nature of guilt to sideline the truth.”
The truth comes out in accidental debris, it seems, as the students try to outsmart, out-guess what the faculty knows — in particular, English teacher Miss Dovecott, the object of much desire for Alex and much disdain for Glenn.
Hubbard captures the emotions of the teenage years, the fears and braggadocio, the insecurities covered up by bold acts, the awkwardness between what is felt and what cannot be expressed.
A big threat to these boys is the undercurrent of homosexuality, which seems to be a constant for boys of this age. If you’re labeled, you’re dead, and accusations are frequent.
And then there’s the token female, Miss Dovecott, because the nurse and the older female teacher don’t count,
Princeton-educated, the young English teacher has a fine line to walk with 400 boys watching her constantly. She knows one misinterpretation can mean the end of her career.
If there’s one slight flaw, it’s that this book takes place in 1982, in the days when contact between teachers and students was not always assumed to be illicit or inappropriate. This feels more like a work of the present day’s suspicions and absolutes.
Glenn figures Miss Dovecott, who arrives on the scene of the drowning immediately, saw more than she’s telling. His solution — accuse her of inappropriate behavior and get rid of her.
But Alex is in love, and Miss Dovecott’s praise of his poetry and essays proves to him he is special in her eyes.
Alex’s poetry, of course, written by Hubbard, isn’t the usual high school doggerel.
But the teacher is so careful, and when Alex actually admits his attraction, she firmly puts him in his place.
The story is told through Is Male’s (Alex’s) diary entries, often with commentary indicating his fears and hesitation to be involved in The Plan.
Alex has a deep inner life, an old soul, as someone tells him; compared to Glenn, who is all about appearances and desperate not to disappoint his father.
There cannot be a happy resolution when one is so guilty and one is so resolutely denying any responsibility.
Alex writes in his diary: “Truth fights for air, and when it finds air, Is Male the Liar is going down.”
The nuances of these boys’ relationships and emotions is spot on. If you were in high school in that era, you’ll recognize these guys as classmates. The accident is simply an archetype for that one terrible accident that seems to happen in every group.
Hubbard, once a teacher, knows who these teens are and how to tell a story from their perspectives. She sets the right tone, from the boys’ speech to her minimalist descriptions of the setting. The Birch School is a venue —not a character. And the character is the angst and confusion of that most difficult time of our lives.

Book signing
Jenny Hubbard will read from and sign her book, “Paper Covers Rock” on Tuesday at 7 p.m., at Literary Bookpost, 110 S. Main St. A reception with the author will follow.