Background: “M.E. Kerr” is one of a half-dozen pseudonyms of the incredibly prolific Marijane Meaker, whose 60+ year career includes scores of novels, short stories and non-fiction collections across a number of genres (as Vin Packer she penned the inaugural lesbian pulp title Spring Fire in 1952). A contemporary and colleague of Louise Fitzhugh and Paul Zindel, her best known YA title is Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! which was made into an ABC Afterschool Special starring Wendie Jo Sperber, which seemed to be rerun constantly on Nickelodeon in the mid-1980s.
Despite the pedigree, I have to admit that I almost gave up and threw this one back on the pile after the first few chapters- we’ll get to that in a second. Let’s take a look at the cover:
I’d assume that the main character, a short, nerdy 16-year old with a crew-cut, would be prominently featured on the cover. I honestly have no idea who that middle-aged George Hamilton-looking dude is supposed to be.
The Plot: In a weak moment of 16-year old boy-lust, Hamptons Townie Wally Witherspoon has managed to get himself “unofficially engaged” to his beautiful, petite blonde girlfriend, Harriet Hren. Unfortunately, he is still carrying a torch for his old girlfriend, Lauralei Rabinowitz, despite the fact that she is six inches taller than he is, has a bump on her nose and “has to shave her legs every day.” Lauralei unceremoniously dumped him for being too short and not Jewish, but mainly because he is expected to go to mortuary school and continue in his father’s funeral home business.
Now Wally faces constant pressure from Harriet and her family (including seven siblings whose names all start with the letter H) to come up with a “ring by spring” so they can be married immediately after their high school graduation.
Summering in the Hamptons is teenaged soap opera star Sabra St. Amour (real name: Maggie Duggy). Recently diagnosed with an ulcer and recovering from a nervous breakdown, Sabra and her widowed mother are plotting their next move as her character is about to written out of the show. Sabra and her mother have a loving, but dysfunctional, relationship, largely the product of the daughter’s stardom and mother’s own frustrated show business ambitions. A child star (she was starring in her first Broadway show at the age of 13), Sabra is looking forward to the break from the pressures of daily tapings and figuring out how to live life like a normal teenage girl for the first time.
While Wally and Sabra’s worlds are destined to collide (each chapter switches back and forth with first-person narrative duties), for the first few chapters Kerr seems most concerned with coming up with ridiculous names for every single character. I was basically ready to give up on this one when I got to the introduction of high school jock-bully Duffo Buttman (!!!)
Sabra’s mother, Madam St. Amour (real name: Peg) delivers the news over dinner one night that the producer of Sabra’s soap, Hometown, is arriving in the Hamptons via seaplane to discuss the possibility of continuing her contract after all; she bribes her daughter into agreeing to the meeting with a gold bracelet inscribed with the following verse:
For all I know you’re Rome
And Paris, too, I’m home
With dreams and you- that’s all I need;
You cut yourself, I bleed.
The battleaxe of a producer, Fedora Foxe, is an Irna Phillips-like legend in the business, having been writing soaps since the radio days. She explains to Sabra and her mother that she wants keep Sabra on the show, but due to the delicate condition of her health, they will confine her role to “phone calls and voiceovers” and have an RN on the set at all times. Then Fedora drops the bombshell: she will be bringing back a former writer to the series, a 24 year old wunderkind named Lamont Orr who was the bane of the St. Amours’ existence the last time he wrote for the show. Sabra agrees to think over the proposal, but is secretly looking forward to a more normal life.
She at last meets Wally down at the beach, where he works for a T-shirt concession, with his best friend Charlie Gilhooley. Charlie has troubles of his own. Sabra immediately pegs him as “the type who came out of the closet without even a hanger trailing after him”, but his parents aren’t so glib about their son’s announcement:
Mrs. Gilhooley visited Father Leogrande at Holy Family Church and tried to arrange for an exorcist to go to work on Charlie. Charlie’s father practiced his own form of spirit routing on Charlie by breaking his nose.
Obviously, Charlie is the most interesting character in the entire book: his sudden status as the the “town freak” makes him more maturely accepting of the other misfits he encounters, even though they don’t always return the favor (he has the occasional platonic disco-date with Easy Ethel Lingerman, the school tramp; disappointingly, Easy Ethel immediately ditches him to go hang out with Duffo Buttman and company). Wally and Charlie’s friendship is also refreshingly free of Gay Panic: although Wally admits that they had vowed not to discuss their love lives, they immediately went back on that promise and now constantly commiserate with one another.
Sabra and her mother urge Charlie to move to Greenwich Village after he graduates, which would seem to be the obvious path (his father sarcastically suggests San Francisco would be even better); but Charlie isn’t so keen to leave Long Island just because his parents can no longer deal with the fact of his very existence.
When Lamont arrives in town the following week, he takes Sabra and her mother out to the local disco where Madam St. Amour has a touch too much Chartreuse and is SO EMBARSSING, so when Sabra spots Wally and Charlie in the crowd she is grateful for an excuse to slip away.
Despite having lived a sheltered life as a child star, Sabra is in many ways worldlier than her new friends. Wally confides in her about his predicament with Harriet, and she advises him to get out of the unofficial engagement and defy his parents’ insistence that he go into the funeral business; Charlie and Madam St. Amour turn out to be kindred spirits, of a sort.
The surprise twist doesn’t come until the very end of the book, when Sabra is revealed to be an unreliable narrator: possibly still suffering from the lingering effects of her nervous breakdown, she has been confusing her real life with the character she plays on TV; when she learns that her mother has been carrying on a long-term affair with Lamont (and that he has been writing for the show at her recommendation from the beginning) she snaps. Hijacking Wally, she drives all the way back to Manhattan, where she rouses a famous biographer in the middle of the night and proceeds to dictate her life story to him, while Wally sits around the Dakota all night, stunned at the turn of events.
The epilogue picks up with Wally the following year: Sabra and her mother have disappeared back into the world of Show Biz, and the gossip columns hint that Madam is now involved with her daughter’s biographer.
When his father had a Funeral Emergency the night that Sabra kidnapped Wally, Charlie stepped in to help manage the arrangements, and did so well that he is now living with the Witherspoons and planning on going to mortuary school himself and becoming a partner in the business, letting Wally off the hook. Charlie even gets the last laugh, as he is last seen throwing funerary business to the floral shops not owned by the families of his high school tormentors.
Back at high school for his senior year, Wally’s love life might even be starting to turn around, as Lauralei Rabinowitz finally puts in an appearance, having heard that Wally is no longer doomed to be an undertaker and maybe giving him a second chance:
“Now if you were two feet taller and your name was Witherstein you’d be perfect!”
Sign It Was Written in 1977 Department: Sabra asks Wally out to a movie and he’s too embarrassed to accept because the only theater is town is showing an X-rated feature and he doesn’t want to admit that he’s underage.
Off-Broadway Department: Lamont is the author of a play called The Wind of Reluctant Admissions.