Prom Trouble By James L. Summers

Clearly, there is no kind of trouble worse than Prom Trouble! It has turned our hero’s hair gray!

(Although, frankly, I am more concerned about his boney girl-arms: it looks like if he tried to bang that gavel his arm would snap right off at the wrist) 

The Plot: I know it seems like every other week I’m like “Guys, this was THE WORST!” but I think this may in fact be The Worst. It was so bad that when it seemed like I had been reading it for 300 years and was only on page 70, I almost gave up.  And I still can’t even tell you exactly what went on! There is no reason for a 220 page trade paperback intended for 12 year olds to have more characters than War and Peace! And while I am glad these characters all have rich inner lives, we do not need to hear everyone’s interior monologue! Especially when everyone is interior-monologuing all at once!

The gray-haired lad on the cover is the (presumably unintentionally) hilariously named Rodney Budlong, AKA Rod, AKA Budlong AKA The Budlong. Rodney is constantly reflecting upon the fact that he may not be as smart as some of the other kids in his class. Usually this is a way of setting up a character as a modest, likeable Everyfellow, but in this case, Rodney really comes off as being as dumb as a sack of hammers.

In some sort of coup d’état at the end of his sophomore year, the masses rebel against the “snob crowd” at the local high school and elect Rodney president of the Junior class. The main duty he is charged with is the fundraising for and planning of the Junior Prom. Elected along with him are girl-smarty pants and car nut Jody Bradford as secretary, and ostracized girl-athlete Bernice Galloway as Prom Chairman-woman-lady-person. But, don’t bother trying to remember who these people are or what they are named: they’ll be buried under an avalanche of Jims, Kips, Kents, Bills, Buds, Harveys, Langstons, and Wallaces, none of whom contribute to the plot or have a distinct personality, but all of whom are known by 2 or more nicknames. Rodney’s non-specifically ethnic friend Charles Nipomo, for example, is referred to as “Charles”, “Charlie” and “Nipomo” in the same paragraph. The same 4-line paragraph.

Rodney has a crush on Jody, and we learn she feels the same way about him. Jody, realizing that Rodney is no mental heavyweight after he becomes utterly confused by her use of the word “agenda”, decides the best course of action is to be the gal behind the President and do all the work for him and make him think that he did it himself. Because he is pretty stupid and easy to trick into believing things.

Really, that’s as far as I can go in describing the plot in a coherent and linear manner. Here is A List Of Stuff That Happens:

1. Everyone stands around and speculates in a coded-1950s way whether the new English teacher-slash-class advisor, Mr. Buckwilder, is gay. Against his gayness: he served on a submarine in World War II. In favor of his gayness: he writes poetry. Also he tends to have a far-off and poetic look in his eye, as if he might be thinking up a poem RIGHT THAT MINUTE. Also he teaches English, which everyone knows is a girl-subject

2. In-fighting amongst the Juniors over whether to have a formal or a semi-formal. Even Rodney’s friends turn against him when it comes to the question of how will they raise the 300 Earth-Dollars to pay for it. Luckily….

3. Mr. Buckwilder used to work for a company that arranged magazine subscription fundraisers for schools. At this point there is a lot of business about Gal Jody being too efficient about arranging a meeting with a sales rep from a DIFFERENT magazine-subscription-fundraiser company, and Mr. Buckwilder having to fess up to a conflict of interest and maybe having to resign in disgrace. In the confusion, Rodney accidentally asks Bernice instead of Jody to the prom. Because he is stupid.

4. Then, abruptly, it’s chapter 15 and all the problems are solved. I guess? We never find out if (or why) Mr. Buckwilder has to resign in disgrace or even if they have a formal or  a semi-formal! But all of a sudden Mr. Budlong is holding a midnight movie show for the promgoers, and Mrs. Budlong has arranged for a late-night breakfast at the American Legion Hall, and Rodney is telling people to store paper mache palm trees in the boiler room.

5. The prom apparently goes over so well that Rodney is reelected class President for their Senior year. Rodney’s sister explains to Jody that he likes her and not Bernice.

And then it’s over! I guess. There aren’t any flyleaves in the back of the book, so I don’t know if TAB (a subsidiary of Scholastic) cheaped out on paper or if there were a few missing pages with an An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge-type explanation, which would make some sense.  HE HAS TO LIVE IT ALL OVER AGAIN!

This slip of a “plot” (or Stuff That Happens) plays out in some of the densest prose I have ever read.  Here, Rodney’s father, who owns a movie theater, has just agreed to lend the Senior class an old popcorn machine for a fundraiser, and is now thinking over  his decision to do so:

He glanced across the room at his helpmeet, Mrs. Budlong, and smiled knowingly. Wives were so naïve; they considered their clever husbands dullards when it came to raising the young. Why, before she could signal that yes, he would most certainly lend that worthless popcorn machine, he had recognized the spark of enterprise and fanned it to flame. He knew there was plenty of value in the boy sitting before him and loading himself with apple pie- a third piece, or slab, by now. Both he and his wife knew there was good stuff in their son…

Or here, where Jody’s father (the local doctor) tries to remember what Rodney’s head looks like:

“Nice young fellow,” seeing more- the generous, if not abundant, ears; the mild blue eyes as he held the card over each alternately and asked that a few letters on a chart be read, directions which almost anyone with normal intelligence could follow at once. He visualized the mouth pried open with the stick, the rows of white teeth, the excellent tonsillectomy which he had performed himself, the traces of orthodontia- which could be better for the money those fellows charged parents. At last, he saw the magnificent bone structure behind all these elements…

It just goes on and on and on like this, even speculating on the thoughts of characters that aren’t in the book, such as this description of a prom-planning meeting devolving into bedlam:

“-a big slice in your lap!” came the final intelligible statement before class opinion had merged itself into the customary roar. In the meantime Roberts- author of Roberts’ Rules of Order– gave another lurch in his grave. “Twirling Roberts, the saucer man,” other ghosts were calling him lately…

On top of the SO MANY WORDS is the oddly snotty and condescending tone taken by the author. He sneers at teenagers and their foolish hopes and dreams, but he also seems to think that adults, and everything they hold dear, are also stupid.

And finally, the target audience also apparently found this book boring and incoherent: tucked inside was yellowed slip of notebook paper with three lines of directions scrawled on it regarding Tornado Preparedness, and then a number of penciled cuneiform figures. If I may, in the spirit of the volume: I imagine some mid-1950s Boy Scout thinking that he was getting away with reading a paperback in his Tornado Preparedness Meeting, then finding the book so incomprehensible he took to doodling instead.

Sign It Was Written in 1954 Department: Rock and Roll has not appeared on the scene for James L. Summers to hold up as another object of contempt.

Good Name For a Restaurant Department: Mother Kutchel’s Hot Doughnut Shoppe

Whatever Happened to James L. Summers? Department: Died 1973, I like to imagine in the act of telling hippies to get off of his lawn. Authored a large number of books and short stories for Scholastic.  His other titles include Girl Trouble, Trouble on the Run, Trouble on Hogback Hill, and The Trouble With Being In Love.  I sense a theme.  There is one set in the world of Go-Karting that has an enthusiastic review on Amazon.com, although even that reviewer notes that it has “a surprising vocabulary for a book aimed at such a young audience.”

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14 Responses to Prom Trouble By James L. Summers

  1. Carrie Laben says:

    My god, that prose. Also weirded out by the doctor contemplating Our Hero’s skull.

    • mondomolly says:

      You want I should type more? Here is the principal thinking about how maybe this whole Prom concept has gotten out of hand in recent years:

      “He also knew that the theory of the Junior Prom was excellent, but in practice it gave the community a nasty start. Mrs. Perimeter spoke for plenty of others when she objected to its selectivity, because the whole class raised the money and only a handful of ballroom athletes spent it. Even before Mr. Saginaw had come to this school, the custom had arisen that dinner at The Knolls before the event was de rigueur, but strictly. Dinner at The Knolls, as any fool knew (and the community was loaded with citizens in the know) stood at $4.75 F.O.B. for the most pitiable charcoal-broiled steak. The good, sensible dandelion and purple alfalfa corsages a vigorous boy could pick wild in the better days had now become five-dollar orchids- on the assumption that a girl ought to have her orchids now and eat her oatmeal later. And- Mr. Saginaw shuddered slightly- some female, whom the Board had hired one year, actually suggested that boys were cute in mess jackets, the way boys were in Trenton Institute, or wherever she came from- highly recommended too, from the State of Illinois. It was a comfort to realize all the idiots weren’t concentrated here in California…”

  2. Matt Pie says:

    That prose is a walk in the park compared to “Lord Jim”.

  3. I read this whole thing and I still have no idea what this was about. However the characters’ names were absolutely INSPIRED.

    • mondomolly says:

      I didn’t even get to Stone-Brain (always with a hyphen) and Fat Boy (no hyphen). Or when they discuss having a semi-formal dinner dance and someone suggests that it should be a nice ham-based meal and snobby Albert Kenwood suggests that they change the name from Prom to PRHAM, because: ham.

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  10. I went to a library sale today and found this book and ‘Girl Trouble’ by James L. Summers. I just had to buy them. Very happy about finding this blog!

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