"Boy in the Water"

Naked teenagers, mutilated animals and a serial killer terrorize a guilt-ridden shrink at a boarding school.

Published July 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

A guy gets a blow job and his life is blown to hell.

There you have the basic setup for "Boy in the Water," Stephen Dobyns' thriller about an esteemed clinical psychologist who, in order to punish himself for the one indiscretion of his adult life, has taken a lousy job as the headmaster of a corrupt and haunted boarding school in deepest, darkest New Hampshire. As Dr. Jim Hawthorne sees it -- and as Dobyns has arranged it -- his sin is the circumstantial cause of one very monstrous effect. While Hawthorne was having his carnal colloquy in the front seat of his car with a former colleague, a patient of his was starting a fire that would kill the doctor's wife and daughter. And that is merely the background story in what becomes a spiraling series of effects as improbable (though not as giddy) as the plot of a schlocky teen horror movie.

It turns out that the financially strapped boarding school is a viper's nest of crime, corruption and spiteful incompetence; and no sooner does Hawthorne start setting things right than the school's faculty and board of directors begin conspiring to scare him away so that they can get back to their vicious schemes. Hawthorne sees ghosts, gets phone messages from his dead wife and discovers a hanged cat. Then the human bodies start piling up, which only stands to reason, since there's also a serial killer working at the school. Yet Hawthorne doesn't give in. He is a good man, and how do we know this? Because he suffers. Because he accepts his punishment, wishing only that "the taunts would get worse, like a noise turned higher and higher till it became a scream."

Dobyns, the author of 20 novels and nine books of poetry, is skilled at plotting suspense and setting clues. He paints vivid images with fine descriptive touches, such as one of a stranded kitten trying to stay dry on the bare back of a drowned boy. He also slides deftly into the thoughts and language of a half-dozen characters -- a couple of students, another teacher, a detective, the killer -- without ever straying from Hawthorne' s drama. And although he resorts to the heavy-handed stage effect of a snowstorm so severe it knocks out the school's electricity and telephone service, it is not the ham-handedness or the dashed-off quality of the writing that one minds.

What's finally most irritating about "Boy in the Water" is its pretensions to sensitivity and thoughtfulness. Good schlock should be mindless and morally vacuous. But Dobyns wants to have it both ways: thrills and chills (naked teenagers, mutilated animals, depraved serial killers) as well as reflection and remorse and healing. It is important to the novel's sense of righteousness, for instance, that Hawthorne didn't initiate the unzipping of his pants. He is too good for that. "Before that evening," Dobyns tells us, "his life had been utterly in his control. He was a success, he was loved, he could do no wrong." It would have been far more interesting if, instead of providing an occasion for his hero's warmth and virtue to shine, Dobyns had asked whether the killing of a wife, a daughter, a student and a couple of colleagues might not have been the fulfillment of dark wishes buried deep in the good doctor's psyche.

By Thomas Hackett

A former newspaper reporter, Thomas Hackett is a freelance magazine writer who lives in New York.

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