Is it back to school time already? Well, the important thing is to start the year with a good attitude:
Ok, maybe not a good attitude. The important thing is to start the year with a cautionary tale! And nothing makes me more nostalgic for high school than teenagers suffering the consequences of their poor decisions!
The Plot: High school seniors Jeff, David and Betsy are running the risk of not graduating because of failing grades in their English class, taught by cranky old taskmaster Mr. Griffin. Charming sociopath Mark, who has a boatload of grudges against their teacher, proposes that they kidnap and throw a scare into him. While they all agree aloud that this will somehow teach Griffin a harmless lesson about he’s totally not God or something, it really seems to satisfy the sadistic streak in this group of nice suburban young people.
Mark may be failing English, but he is highly intelligent and a keen observer of human behavior. He knows that mousy 11th grader Sue will be the perfect patsy and can easily be convinced by David’s Shaun Cassidy-like charms.
Duncan skillfully reveals only a little at a time about each of the main characters, keeping the reader’s sympathies constantly shifting. Appearing at first to be an empty-headed Golden Boy, class President David’s home life is basically hell on earth: his father abandoned the family when he was a baby, leaving his mother saddled with both David and her invalid mother-in-law. While the town views his mother as a saint, only David is privy to his mother and grandmother’s constant passive-aggressive sniping at each other over lime Jell-O. He is counting down the days until he can leave for college, and is counting on the scholarship that has been jeopardized by his English grade.
Even Mr. Griffin is never presented as wholly sympathetic: despite revealing that he has a loving (and very pregnant) wife at home, and an idealistic outlook on his role as a teacher (he quit a professorship at Stanford to teach high school because students were arriving at college without basic composition skills) he remains a cranky old bastard to the end, openly putting down student athletes and disparaging his coworkers for their low standards. He is never going to be a beloved inspiration to his past students.
Mark’s impressively elaborate kidnapping scheme goes off without a hitch, although Sue is so queasy with guilt she cannot go through meeting the others at the rendezvous point. Once the others have Griffin, bound and blindfolded, in a remote part of the local state park, they find throwing a scare into the old man a tougher proposition than they expected. When Griffin seems to figure out that the anonymous captors ordering him to not be so mean to his first period English class are probably members of his first period English class, Mark becomes enraged, swipes his nitroglycerin prescription and orders the others to leave him in the woods to think about how unfair he is.
While Mark, Jeff and Betsy are off to the high school football game, David is also starting to feel uneasy with the whole scheme and seeks out Sue, who is horrified to learn that the others have abandoned the teacher. Under her urging, they drive back up into the woods to free him. Only, it is too late and he’s died of a heart attack.
Mark’s on it, though: David and Jeff are relieved that he has all of the answers, and both Betsy and Sue get a sick-but-sexy thrill just being around him. Nobody really questions how he knows so much about committing credit-card fraud or how to make a “hot” car permanently disappear. When the local cops show up at school to question panic-stricken Sue, the last person who had seen Mr. Griffin before he went missing, Mark is there to feed her a story that casts suspicion onto Griffin as a “runaway husband”.
Unfortunately, the other teens are not as well-practiced psychopaths as Mark, and fall to pieces when left to their own devices. Sue and David and hopeless when it comes to improvising lies on their own, and Princess Betsy is unable to stop shooting her mouth off to the cops (do you know who her father is???)
I’m not going to give it away, but eventually a missing class ring, a scorned ex-girlfriend and even David’s absent father all come into play after the body is found. And, of course, Mark’s solution to the problems caused by murdering is more murdering, eventually leading to his tying up the remorseful Sue and setting her house on fire with her inside of it, as she reflects:
His was a quiet, beautiful face, with a wide, smooth forehead, and a sweet, strong mouth, and eyes with the glow of far places and lovely dreams. I love him, Susan thought, realizing it for the first time. And I hate him. And he is going to kill me.
The book concludes with a realistically downbeat coda that includes Griffin’s widow returning Sue’s last English assignment. She was getting an A on it.
Sign it Was Written in 1978 Department: “Don’t be ridiculous,” Mrs. McConnell had told him. “Nobody is ever an old maid these days. The term is ‘single person.’”
Irony! Department: Jeff’s father muses: “All you have to do is open the paper or pick up a magazine, and you see a bunch of messed-up kids in trouble. It makes you wonder where the parents are while all that’s going on.”
Hippie Hippie Flake Department: “Dolly Luna, last year’s teacher (formally she was ‘Miss Luna, but the first day of class she had told them, ‘Call me Dolly!’), had given him A’s on all of his papers, followed by strings of exclamation marks.”