Do you have a book that you’ve read, that you love to a possibly unhealthy degree? And for whatever reason, you try to get other people to read it and no one ever does because A) They haven’t heard a million other people talk about it, B) They haven’t heard of the author, C) There’s no movie based on it, or D) They want you to lend it to them, but about 90% of your books have been packed away into storage for the last three years. (That last one is probably just me.)
That’s this book for me.
It’s not a YA book. Make no mistake. Just because it’s about kids in high school, doesn’t necessarily make it for kids in high school. Because I’m one of those lefties who will probably never censor anything my kid wants to read, I’d let him read it as a teenager. There’s a lot of sex, but that’s not really why it isn’t YA. It’s not YA because the way it’s told is in this sort of making-fun-of-who-we-were sort of way that a kid might just not get yet. Well, they may get it, but you kind of have to be an adult to enjoy it. You may remember I referenced this book in my also glowing review of The Screwed Up Life of Charlie the Second. (And if you haven’t read that review – go read it and then check out that the author left me a comment!)
The year is 1983, and Edward Zanni is seventeen years old and getting ready to start his senior year of high school in suburban New Jersey. His best friend, Paula, is one year older and getting ready to start her freshman year at Julliard as a drama major. Edward’s big plan is to follow Paula there next year. You see, Edward and Paula are “Play People.” That is, they perform in their high school’s plays. Both are considered very talented.
The high school is performing Grease, and Edward knows he just isn’t right for the role of Danny Zuko. So, he opts to wow everyone with the small role of Teen Angel. Edward’s girlfriend (and former cheerleader, current play person), Kelly, is Sandy. Danny is played by football jock and BMOC, Doug Grabowski. Edward, for whatever reason, has decided to try and culture Doug Grabowski, get him to stop being a jock douche and become a Play Person. Also, Paula wants to lose her virginity to Doug Grabowski before she leaves for college.
The big plan is to set up a double-date and go into the city to see A Chorus Line. Doug doesn’t realize he’s supposed to be on this double date with Paula, so Paula’s plans are ruined when Doug brings along a sophisticated Persian beauty named Ziba, as well as Natie Nudelman, Wallingford High School’s cheesehead. The head of the A.V. Club and sporting a horrible red Jew-fro, Natie Nudelman has been a constant companion of Edward’s thanks to their being neighbors and Natie being a total fucking sociopath. The dude knows how to get away with shit.
This group of six (minus, quite often, Paula once she goes off to Julliard) become the focus of this novel and the most important people in Edward’s life as he faces a daunting senior year in high school. (But before high school starts, their last summer is one filled with CV – creative vandalism.)
Edward’s parents are divorced. His mother left his father to go on a spiritual journey through Asia and South America. Edward insists he understands, because if he was married to Al Zanni, he’d have left too. Al is a stereotypical Italian loudmouth from Jersey (this book was published a few years before Jersey Shore, thankyouverymuch). He makes a lot of money and never fails to let you know it. Because he’s been saddled with raising Edward (and Edward’s stoner older sister, Karen), he gets them together once a week for business dinners, where he hits on waitresses and tries his best to get Edward and Karen to understand good business.
Edward seems to get a reprieve when Al meets, and marries, Dagmar, an Austrian photographer. Edward initially gets along with Dagmar (they are both arteests, after all) but that quickly sours. The faster Edward’s relationship with Dagmar goes downhill, the faster his already poor relationship with Al goes downhill. It all comes to a head when Al announces that he will only pay for college if Edward agrees to major in business. No Julliard for Edward.
What’s a guy to do? He goes to his best friends and they come up with a plan. And this is Natie Nudelman’s honest-to-god list of ways Edward can pay for college. 1-Work, 2-Scholarships, 3-Theft, 4- Murder. He does at least admit that maybe murder is a little harsh. Need-based scholarships are out because Al makes to much money. Edward gets a job (several, in fact) with not a lot of luck, finally ending up at the local fast-food chicken joint. He tries to be OK with the fact that it could take a few years to get into Julliard. He also has to get legally emancipated. Which means no support from Al, which means Edward moves out of his house and into Kelly’s (telling Kelly’s mom that he and Kelly broke up because he’s gay so that she’d let him live there), which also means Edward gets to write his own absence excuses at school.
While all this is going on, Edward remains perfectly happy with his relationship with Kelly, only to be blindsided by inadvertently falling in love with Doug Grabowski. (Listen, that guy Edward made out with at dance camp last summer, totally doesn’t make him gay. He did that just in case he ever has to play a gay guy, right? Right.) OK, so Edward has to admit his bisexuality to himself now. And eventually and uncomfortably, to Doug. Doug is so hell-bent on NOT becoming like his abusive father, that he’s totes cool with hanging out with, and even occasionally teasing, Edward.
On the Julliard front, Paula lets Edward know that some big-shot classical actor will be teaching at Julliard for one year only, and Edward simply must find his way in. It’s time to return to Natie’s list. Number 3-Theft. Do they dare? As luck would have it, Edward and Doug are out one night, and Dough (who happens to speak German, thanks to spending his summers with his gay gymnast Uncle in Germany) overhears Dagmar speaking German to a friend. Turns out the miserable bitch is stealing from Al.
So now they know what money they need to steal. And this is where the book gets Ca-razy. The little gang gets together with the help of some priest and nun costumes, some money laundering, Frank Sinatra, and an obituary of a classmate’s sister and they fucking steal this money and commit some major fraud while they’re at it.
And if that’s not bad enough, they also find a very hilarious way to blackmail a US Senator’s son for Edward’s second year tuition.
Does it work? Do you think I’m gonna tell you? Go read the friggin book. Dudes. I barely even touched on all the crazy shenanigans in this book. Seriously, it is so dense with characters (major and minor) and funny little asides and the tiniest perfect details. Those details almost overshadow the main plot of thievery, fraud and blackmail. These details?
- Oh the characters. Paula with her nineteenth-century figure and large bosom and her very theatrical way of speaking. Doug who is surprised as anyone to find that he’s more than a dumb jock and that he has a genuine affection for Edward. Kelly, the fucked up daughter of an alcoholic therapist and a herpes-infested physician father. Ziba in the US after being run out of Iran by the Shah, is willing to do anything to escape the boredom of the suburbs. And friggin Natie, who only gets more and more sociopathic as the book wears on. (Per Edward, it’s Natie’s plan to either BE a politician one day, or to OWN a politician one day.) And Al Zanni. For some reason, the description tragicomic makes me cringe, but it really is a perfect descriptor for Al. Here’s a guy who is presented as a buffoon, but as the book goes on, these little human moments come out. And for fuck’s sake. He raised two kids by himself after his wife left him on a spiritual quest. The fact that he’s there has got to count for something, right?
- The minor characters are just as wonderful. Paula’s Aunt Glo, a MoP (Mother of a Priest) who is a little off her rocker. Dagmar, the Austrian bitch. Edward’s mother who makes a surprise appearance at the end. Mr. Lucas, Edward’s paraplegic English/Drama teacher, who lets Edward crash at his apartment one night after embarrassingly seeing each other at a gay bar in the city. (Nothing happened.)
Other fun little details:
- Edward insists outwardly that he’s cool with his mom leaving. But then he lets these little hints drop on occasion that he really isn’t. When he gets sad about something, he says his chest gets tight in that “watching-my-mother-leave-for-the-last-time kind of way.” And at the end, this all comes to a head.
- The sex-capades. These are some sexually active kids. Edward is with Kelly. Then he gets a crush on Doug and has trouble…ahem….performing for Kelly. Doug dates Ziba for a while. Then Kelly and Edward break up and Doug ends up with Kelly for a while. Then Edward almost hooks up with a dude at the gay bar (before he’s rescued by Mr. Lucas). Then Edward almost gives Doug a BJ on the roof of a hotel before being cock-blocked by Natie Nudelman and his need to blackmail a Senator’s Son. Then Kelly and Ziba end up together. Then Kelly and Edward again, concurrently with Kelly and Ziba. Then Paula and Doug finally end up together.
- Edward’s disdain for his suburban community, Wallingford. He wishes the term bedroom community meant it was “…sexy…that all kinds of otherwise respectable people were having orgies behind closed doors. But it proably just means that not much else happens in Wallingford beyond sleeping.” Also, Edward only parks in the visitors space at school, because he thinks of himself as “someonw who is just visiting a suburban New Jersey high school, rather than someone who actually attends one.”
- Natie considers defrauding a university for Edward’s tuition money. He justifies this by saying, “when you consider how many of them fund research that supports Reagan’s missile defense plan, fraud is really more an act of civil disobedience than a crime.”
- When Edward is drunk at the gay bar, and winds up at Mr. Lucas’ apartment, Mr. Lucas tells this story about when he first got injured he thought his life was over because his career as an actor was over. And he wanted to kill himself, but he couldn’t because there was always more than one book that he was reading, and he can’t stand the thought of not knowing how a book ends, even if he doesn’t like the book. So books saved his life, literally. That is one detail that has always stuck with me about this book, because I love the idea that books can save lives.
- The reaction of the rest of the group about Edward’s bisexuality is wonderfully blase. I think they all knew before Edward did. Natie catches Edward nearly giving Doug a BJ on the roof of a hotel, and later when it comes time to put a Senator’s Son in a compromising position for blackmail photos, Doug is like, “Not me! Edward’s the bisexual one.” Then Edward tries to say Doug is joking and Natie says, “I suppose you were just helping him tie his shoes up there on the roof.”
- “Hard work may pay off in the long run, but the benefits of laziness are immediate.” Best quote ever? I think so.
- The book is so deliciously 1980’s. The outfit descriptions are killer (Paula likes to wear two different colored shoes. Edward owns skinny ties, Kelly wears her sweatshirts off the shoulder.) Pop-culture references – A Chorus Line, Matthew Broderick in Brighton Beach Memoirs, Paula calls Madonna a flash in the pan. Mr. Lucas asks Edward if he’s heard of AIDS. Reagan is referenced a few times.
Look guys, it’s late and I’m tired. I want you to read this book. It really is a novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship and Musical Theater, as the subtitle suggests. But really strong on the sex and friendship, two themes which make for awesome writing.