YA fiction of a certain vintage that attempts to tackle topical issues tends to do so in very black-and-white terms: if you have premarital sex, you will get pregnant and ruin your life; one puff on a joint (or as I like to say in my best Jack Webb voice “a marihuana cigarette”) inexorably leads to shooting heroin in a dark alley; or in this case, you are either a sanctimonious teetotaler or are laying in your own filth behind the bus station waiting for your next bottle of Ripple. There is no gray area, no social drinking, no youthful experimentation. Have fun being a wino, if you make the wrong choices, kid!
The Plot: The murky and depressing cover is appropriate, since the story is also pretty murky and depressing. I feel like the title is something of a misnomer, however: high school hockey player Buff Saunders’ drinking too much is merely a symptom of his real problem, which is that his father won’t stop beating the crap out of him.
The unnamed narrator is a 14 year old high school freshman in Chicopee, Connecticut who finally makes the third-string JV hockey team, which is where he meets lumbering man-child Buff. When Buff gets his front teeth knocked out during practice, Unnamed Narrator rides along with him to the hospital, and by doing so unwittingly becomes Buff’s new BFF.
It drives me up the wall that the narrator doesn’t have a name, and since a large portion of the book seems to be cribbed from Of Mice and Men, I am just going to call the main character George. Although reading the biographical paragraph on the author, I’m guessing that “Shep Greene” would also suffice.
Buff gets twelve stitches in his face, and since this is 1979, no one at the hospital cares that a parent doesn’t show up to collect him, so he and George walk home to the apartment that he shares on the wrong side of the tracks with his father. On the way there Buff is really excited about the idea of traveling around the country with George as a long-haul trucker:
“We could do it together,” he said “You and me. We could sign on a big rig and haul potatoes from Maine to Florida. Or roll cattle from Vancouver to Montreal!”
When George points out that he’s still two years away from even getting his learner’s permit, Buff assures him that he’ll do the driving and George can operate the CB radio, which is an early clue that maybe Buff isn’t in the same age-bracket as the average high school freshman.
Buff explains that he and his father travel around a lot because his old man can’t hold down a job:
“Because someone always has it in for him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Someone always tries to blame him for something he didn’t do. Like stealing money for food or something.”
Mr. Saunders arrives home from his job tending bar and admires Buff’s missing teeth. “I didn’t lose mine until I was 18!”
Buff’s father is a former pro hockey player from Canada, and he constantly pressures his son to keep playing, because “A Saunders never quits!”
After his father has several martinis while George awkwardly hangs around, Buff gives his father some sass-mouth and his father freaks out and punches him in his newly stitched-together face.
The next day George is talking over the situation with his widowed neighbor, Mrs. Benedict, while he helps her out with some household chores. Like pretty much every adult in this book, she is exceedingly unhelpful, but also worried that George might come down with a drinking problem himself. This can only be avoided by swearing off the demon rum forever.
George’s best friend and teammate Art invites him to a make-out party at his girlfriend’s house while her parents are on vacation. His girlfriend, Tina, has a thing for hockey players and promises to get a date for Buff if George can convince him to come. George is on his own as far as securing a girl for himself, and as Art explains:
“If you don’t show up at Tina’s with a date then it means you’re a fag.”
George doesn’t realize that “There’s a proper way to invite a girl out, apparently” and fails to get anyone to accept his invitation. Predictably, Art goes into a whole limp-wristed, lisping routine when George shows up alone… but then he whips off his shirt and starts flexing his muscles like Steve Reeves for George and Buff’s benefit:
Art unbuttoned his shirt and slipped out of the sleeves. He flexed again, one pectoral, then the other.
“Hey, stop that!” I said loud enough so the girls could hear. “You want to get arrested for indecent exposure?”
“Look! My nipples are winking at you!”
I don’t know, Art, that all seems kind of, you know, sublimated…
Tina is really impressed by Buff’s missing teeth. To the point where it seems less like she has a thing for hockey players and more like she has some kind of toothlessness fetish. Buff’s father has acquired a bridge for him, but Tina is firm in her tastes:
“I think I like them better out,” Tina said as she watched him. So he spat them out. “What is it like to kiss with no teeth?” she asked him.
“Wanna find out?” he said with a laugh.
She has two whole beers and starts dirty dancing with him (“Tina is a very expressive dancer. She uses her body very well.”), which means that he has to go fight Art in the garage, which ends up with Buff barfing boilermakers all over himself and Art cutting his foot open on a broken bottle, necessitating George to take everyone to the ER (again) and Art being benched for the rest of the hockey season.
George at least hits it off with Buff’s would-be date, Julie, a track and field star.
George goes to visit Art after he gets out of the hospital, and he announces that he and Tina have broken up and orders George to “Stop messing around with Saunders” (jealous much?); George has an uncharacteristically violent reaction:
“I was furious. Art knew he had gotten to me. He wouldn’t keep from smiling. He was glad he had hurt me. I saw his bowie knife hanging in its case on the wall and knew where it really belonged. But I controlled myself.”
Buff gets promoted to second-string, and he and Tina celebrate by drinking a bunch of airline-sized bottles of blackberry schnapps and crème de menthe, which makes me queasy just reading about it.
Buff also invites George over to dinner, which George is guilted into accepting. Buff and his father show George the scrapbook they keep of his father’s glory days in Canada. Buff tells George about how his Mommy was killed in a car accident, and even George notes that it is rather unusual that Buff still calls her “Mommy”.
Buff’s father freaks out when some wine is accidentally spilled on the table cloth and takes it out on George:
“I tried to remember the one time my father punched me. I was ten.”
Mr. Saunders then leaves to “go check on something at the shop” which is clearly code for “drinking a couple of bottles of Thunderbird and sleeping under a highway overpass.”
George invites Buff to spend the night at his house, going so far as to cancel his date with Julie to go to the Rampal concert (Classy!). But Buff doesn’t show.
It isn’t until Monday morning when Julie excitedly bursts into George’s first period French class that he learns why: apparently Buff drank the entire contents of the mini bar that he keeps inside his parka and is laying in his own filth behind the tennis court.
George calls kindly Mrs. Benedict, who takes Buff in and advises George and Julie to go confront Mr. Saunders themselves. Which… seems pretty irresponsible on her part? It doesn’t go well: Mr. Saunders flies into a rage and tries to strangle George; when Julie tells him where Buff is, he throws a chair at her.
George and Julie beat him back to Mrs. Benedict’s and informs her that there is a drunken maniac on the way and maybe they should call the police. But Mrs. Benedict says that will just make things worse.
Ok, I can believe that the community would turn a blind eye to Mr. Saunders beating his own son… but now he’s assaulted George (twice) and Julie. It seems like when he’s started beating up the neighborhood teens that the police would get involved. At the very least nowadays he’d earn an audience with Dr. Phil.
Mr. Saunders shows up on Mrs. Benedict’s front lawn and, to emphasize the gravity of the situation, throws a barbeque grill through her front picture window. Buff and his father have a fist fight on the front lawn, then Buff announces that he’s running away- back to CANADA!
George chases him. George finds him in a garage on skid row where he’s kept his mother’s car for all of these years. Buff curls up and falls asleep in George’s arms. It is unclear whether or not Buff and his father will go to the rehab program Mrs. Benedict found for them. Chicopee High loses the big game, but the team votes Buff “most improved” and George shows his support for Julie’s track career, making him a better boyfriend than a hockey player, I guess.
Sign It Was Written In 1979 Department: Chicopee High is having Title IX issues:
“Last fall the PTA raised a big stink when the girls’ gym teacher suggested that the girls should be allowed to use the boys’ facilities. A news crew from WKBW came down to school and put her on television. The PTA chairman resigned. After the storm died down, the girls got permission to use the weight room.”
Juvenile Entendre Department:
“You’ve got a mental block. I had the same problem. You aren’t used to handling the puck. You need more practice with your stick-handling.”
Art, Do You Have Anything Else Gross To Say? Department:
“Speaking of teammates,” he said to Tina, “How’s my tight end doing?”