Norma Klein often shares space with Judy Blume on the American Library Association’s list of “most frequently challenged or banned books”; Blume was in fact the editor of an anthology that featured banned and challenged authors, including Klein. But while Blume garners controversy through her emotionally honest depiction of teenaged anxieties, Klein goes straight for shock value. Which is to say, while the divorcing parents in last week’s book were realistically flawed as human beings, this week’s parents are just a @#^$*%! train wreck that crashed into the side of the mountain and exploded.
The Plot: In fact, “Parents are a @#^$*%! Train Wreck” would be a much better title for this book. The titular Angel Face is 15 year old Jason, a rudderless sophomore stoner in Rockland County, New York (“Are You Stoned?” would be my second-choice title, reflecting his parents frequent inquiry). The coddled youngest child in the family, “Angel Face” is a childhood nickname that his older brother taunts him with exactly twice. In addition to his brother Ty, a high school senior who resolved his complex about only being 5’4” by becoming a champion figure-skater who is now dating the most-desirable girl in school, Jason’s older siblings include brilliant oldest sister Andy, who won scholarships to both Princeton and Harvard Law, and Erin, who is so quiet and unpossessing that nobody noticed that she had developed anorexia a few years back- now she attends a boarding school in Pennsylvania for girls with “special needs”.
The book opens with Jason’s father walking out on his wife of 27 years- he’s “met someone” and his mother is very worked up over the fact that she’s not only a Vassar preppy named Randall Wormwood Hamilton, but she is also a Quaker. Jason is cynical about his mother’s declarations of how she’s given over the best years of her life to husband and family: his parents have not gotten along for as long as anyone can remember, and have frequently separated and dated other people.
Mom mostly seems to be having hysterics about becoming an empty nester: with her daughters away at school and Ty “practically living at” his girlfriend Juliet’s house (“He even sleeps over a lot, not just weekends.”) (Permissive!), she clings desperately to her youngest child, ordering him to not fall in love for at least a year and telling him “I don’t want to make you gay or hopelessly screwed up about women, but I really do love you a whole lot.”
It is difficult to parse out the plot, not only because there is a lot going on, but most of it doesn’t lead anywhere, and it is told through the Jason’s drug-addled perspective.
And Jason isn’t the most sympathetic protagonist, either: he starts dating Vicki, a girl that he’s had a crush on since freshman year, who is a little shy and awkward, but also bright and ambitious: not the female version of himself that he insists she is. He is constantly trying to convince her to go “all the way”, often in ways that probably wouldn’t fly with YA publishers in 2013. Partially out of envy, he then convinces his best friend to dump his girlfriend when he learns that she’s not a virgin and still won’t put out. And just in general, Jason is so busy thinking about boobs that he fails to note the extent of the turmoil his family is going through.
When his science teacher, Ms. Korbel, asks to speak with him after class, Jason hopes that it is because he’s just so irresistible that his Cinemax-fueled hot-for-teacher fantasies are about to come true… but it turns out that she is just looking for someone to sit with her elderly father a few times a month. Jason and Mr. Korbel take a liking to each other, and the older man turns out to be a former ballroom dancing champ, and starts teaching Jason how to waltz and tango. Maybe this will give him some direction in life, or at least make him smoother around girls…? Nope, this goes nowhere. Jason thinks that he might like to be an airline pilot or something.
When Andy comes home from Law School for Thanksgiving, she’s excited about her new boyfriend, but Mom assumes that there must be something wrong with him:
“I bet he’s a drug dealer or he writes kiddie porn, or- I bet he’s into S&M or he’s Polish and they communicate with sign language or he’s from Mainland China and he wants her to move back there with him…”
Over Thanksgiving dinner the parents finally break the news to their two daughters (Jason and Ty had been sworn to secrecy, making telephone calls very awkward); Andy is able to take it in stride, but Erin goes to pieces and draws a bunch of pictures of Unicorns. Yeah, I really want to hear more about the special boarding school.
Jason’s mother isn’t holding up so well. While Jason’s narration paints her as irrational (when the car won’t start before Ty’s skating performance she goes out to the parkway to thumb a ride; when her ex-husband’s wedding day arrives she throws a tantrum because she wasn’t invited and tries to forbid Jason and Ty from going); but reading between the lines, it is pretty easy to see why she’s becoming unhinged: after 27 years as a full-time wife and mother, she can barely get an interview, let alone be hired for an actual job; as far as dating goes, it amounts mostly to fending off lewd suggestions from Juliet’s father
“Oh God, I love it! He’s going to come over and fuck me as a good deed, so I won’t turn gay! It would almost be worth it just to send a video to his wife the next morning, but I doubt I could get through it without throwing up.”
Jason’s father decides to move to San Francisco with Randy, because: hippies. Ty graduates from high school and gets accepted to Berkeley (as does Juliet) which gives their mother another breakdown.
Vicki takes a job as a camp counselor in northern California, and suggests that Jason come visit her. His mother really loses it when she takes him to the airport, begging him not to go, and finally exacting a promise that he’ll only stay a few weeks. Jason is so upset by the exchange that he locks himself in the plane’s rest room and smokes some kind of super-joint that keeps him stoned through the flight, a lengthy nap, and finally a tennis date with his father (did all of the air pollution of the 1980s really deaden people’s sense of smell to the point that they wouldn’t notice that someone was toking up in the restroom at 40,000 feet?)
When he and his father get back from tennis, Randy delivers the news that his mother is dead, having driven her car at 100 miles per hour into a cement highway embankment.
Now I realize how absurd what I am about to say sounds, but: Norma Klein really seems to rely on this particular deus ex machina to resolve a plot. This is at least the second book of hers I’ve read in which a straggling parent-plot is resolved with a suicide.
Jason and Erin move to San Francisco to live with their father and Randy. Jason never responds to Vicki’s letters, although he appreciates her writing them. Ty and Juliet break up about five minutes after the fall semester starts. Andy worries that she’ll bear the burden of a Hemingway-like family suicide curse. Dad is still a bonehead:
“I miss Mom.”
Dad turned green. He still can’t handle even a reference to her.
“Well,” he said. “Of course… but you have Randy.”
“Randy has nothing to do with Mom,” I said, hating him again.
…And then it just kind of trails off.
Which isn’t even a criticism: as in life, a bunch of stuff happens for awhile, and there are never any satisfying answers or closure and nobody learns a lesson or lives up to their true potential.
I know! Bummer.
The other thing the book has going for it is that it still has the power to shock after almost 30 years: the age-appropriate reviewers on Amazon almost seem to be as upset about the fact the parents won’t stop cursing or freaking out or talking inappropriately about sex long enough to actually parent as they do about the downbeat ending or lack of plot.
Sign It Was Written in 1984 Department: When Jason is about to meet Randy for the first time, he hopefully thinks “Maybe she’ll look like Leslie Stahl, that newscaster on TV, blonde, with glasses, but very self-possessed. I wouldn’t mind having a stepmother that looked like Leslie Stahl.”
Symbolic! Department: “I got rid of the kribensis,” Vicki said, turning around. “Remember? The fish that were eating the other ones? First I took them back and got two more kribensis, but it turns out all of them are mean. They have to be. It’s genetic, I guess.”
Mom! Stop! Just Stop! Department: “Do I say I’m a college professor? No, I tell it like it is. Used housewife, devoid of skills, capable of giving a good blowjob if properly tuned.”