In Paper Cover Rock 16-year-old Alex struggles to come to terms with the death of his friend Thomas, and more to the point, with his role in Thomas's death. I dare anyone to read this and not think of Dead Poets Society or A Separate Peace (especially if you saw the movie when when you were in high school, college or close to either). There is a boys boarding school where a boy dies and another group of boys who know more about his death than they are letting on. This isn't to imply that this is a mystery. We know more or less how Thomas died from the beginning. He went to the lake with friends Alex, Glenn, and Clay. They had a few drinks and took turns jumping off a rock into a lake. Thomas dived off the rock head first. Alex and Glenn performed CPR. They ran for help, but it wasn't enough.
There is a Dead Poets Society like teacher in the form of Miss Dovecott. She's young, pretty and one of the few women at the all male institution. Of course like any good teacher Dead Poets Society teacher, Miss Dovecott teaches English. She encourages the budding poet in Alex while also encouraging him to come clean about what happened when Thomas died. She was there when Thomas died too, at least at the end. She was the adult who came running when the boys went looking for help.
The word that first came to mind upon completing this short novel was simmer. There is a lot emotion in this book but it is all just under the surface. I kept waiting for there to be a big blow up of some sort - a big reveal about what really happened when Thomas died, the surviving boys confronting each other in some way, one or more of them falling apart. There's a suggestion that one or more of the boys is gay which may or may not have contributed to the circumstances that led to Thomas's death. It feels like things could boil over at any moment, but that never really happens. Perhaps this is why I found the story slow at times, especially in the middle. Things did get interesting at the end.
The story is narrated by Alex, a budding poet who borrows from Melville's Moby Dick (even though he has yet to actually read Moby Dick) as he tells his story through journal entries. I couldn't quite decide whether having Alex as the narrator was good or bad. His poems were a nice touch to the story, but there was a little too much "if this were a novel then..." and direct talking to the reader. Luckily this was short, less than 200 pages, so this was a minor irritation. The bigger irritation was that there was no big emotional pay off at the end. Then again, perhaps the lack of a big resolution makes the story seem more believable.