A novel about Paul, Charlie, Tom and pot!
The book contains no illustrator credit for the cover, but what do you think- Mercer Mayer? Maybe Dell was hoping to trick kids into picking this up, having mistaken it for a particularly weird installment in the Great Brain series?
Background: Author Coles is a Harvard-affiliated child psychiatrist, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction series Children of Crisis. In 1968 he wrote Dead End School, a novel about racially integrating a school district through bussing, which was illustrated by Norman Rockwell. Recently he was criticized for allegedly fabricating quotes from the likes of William Carlos Williams and William Shawn about how much they love Bruce Springsteen (!!!)
But, in 1969, he just wanted to awkwardly rap with the young people about marijuana and maybe bore them to death before they had a chance to try it.
The Plot: The book is narrated by high school freshman Paul, who opens:
No, I can’t say why I took pot. I don’t think I’m much different from any other ninth grader. I never used to talk about “trips” or “pot” or “grass”. I knew there was something called marijuana, but I knew it like you know the capital of France is Paris. I didn’t think about it. Now I know how to take it.
So, how did Paul and his friends get started on taking these marijuana trips? Neglectful middle-class parents whose problems we hear about for PAGES AND PAGES! Very quickly: Paul’s father works seven days a week at a law firm, then comes home and drinks scotch and milk because he has an ulcer and takes tranquilizers; Tom’s father is a big-deal in advertising and encourages his son to smoke cigars; Charlie’s father is a surgeon, “a slave to his work” and a clearly a stand-in for the author.
Tom’s older brother (“He calls him a ‘lousy hippie’, just because he lets his hair grow and doesn’t wear a tie”) has “been taking marijuana for two years, ever since he got to college”, which piques the boys’ curiosity. Paul tries to play it cool:
Actually, I was a lot nearer to taking pot that they ever realized- or me either. I knew all the words- marijuana, pot, grass.
Reefer! The Devil’s Oregano! Acapulco Gold! Texas Tea!
Sorry, it’s easy to get carried away. Where was I?
Paul’s younger sister is skeptical about the teens’ ability to lay their hands on some this marijuana since “No one around here can get his hands on drugs. They’re illegal, so you have to know a gangster.”
But, Tom proves them wrong when he reveals that he has been going on marijuana-trips for some time, courtesy of his hippie brother and his college friends. Paul and Charlie go over to his house, where he shows them his stash:
The paper was folded up into a neat little square, about three or four inches all around, I’d say, and tied together by string.
He pulled the string and the knot went. He didn’t throw the string aside. He kept it in his hand, as if it was precious. He didn’t really unwrap the package, he just opened it, and held the paper very carefully. From across the room I still thought it was a bluff, because there didn’t seem to be anything in the paper. Thought his next move would be to tell us we were blind, because we couldn’t see what he could see.
This reefer striptease goes on for SIX PAGES. A decade later teenagers could smoke a pot or even do a few lines of The Cocaine in YA novels and it was no big deal (remember, an undiagnosed heart murmur killed Regina Morrow, not the The Cocaine!); but at this point any and all drug use was treated with the sinister ceremony of a satanic ritual- remember the LSD in the Cokes in Go Ask Alice?
After all of that build-up, Paul and Charlie are less-than-impressed by the actual weed, which sends Tom into a defensive, jive-talking rage:
“You don’t know what gives. Well, now’s your moment. This here stuff is pot, boys, real pot- grass, good strong pure grass, Acapulco Gold, my brother says. I’m still not registering? You’re fighting me. Yes, you are. You don’t get me. In Hicksville it’s called marijuana- by the squares who don’t want it. They have laws, lots of them, to make sure no one gets started. Because if they did let people use drugs, all the phonies and fakes around would be seen for what they are and people would say, ‘No dice, boys, no dice, we want out.’”
Shooby-dooby-doo bebop be dooby-doo….
Sorry, I was channeling Cab Calloway for a second there.
Paul has a heart-to-heart talk with his sister, admitting that he’s interested in “trying some of that pot” and she concurs: “In a way I’d like to take some of that marijuana myself.”
The next day they gather at Tom’s house, where he is still in full jive-mode:
“We either take a trip or we stay home, boys. That’s it. You want to travel or not. If you want to try a smoke, I’ll get us on the road.”
Paul and Charlie agree that they would like to “try a smoke”.
So, they all pass around a corncob pipe. For reals, when title character finally makes an appearance, it is an honest-to-God corncob pipe.
In order to drive home the point that Drugs Are Unpredictable And Affect Everyone Differently, the drugs are unpredictable and affect everyone differently. Paul can see through time! Charlie gets the munchies. Tom won’t stop yammering about how high he is.
But the next morning, Paul wakes up with a hangover and a serious case of the paranoids, and he gets into a fight with his sister, who he thinks is going to narc him out:
“A lot of cop-outs take drugs. But they’re not the same drugs I’m talking about. That’s cocaine or like that. That’s the stuff they use in jazz bands or like that. It’s not the same.”
“I bet the stuff you and Charlie and Tom took, I’ll bet that jazz musicians use it, too, and I’ll bet they’re sorry.”
Sorry. Tom tells Paul that he should eat some ice cream (SENSIBLE ADVICE) , but he and Charlie convince him that they should all go have a talk with Charlie’s father, the surgeon, about marijuana. This is what the good doctor has to say:
“It’s called all sorts of names around the world, like ‘hashish’ or ‘bhang’.”
“It can be smoked or chewed or sniffed- and I think cigarettes or a pipe are favored in the western world.”
“No one knows what he’s taking when he uses marijuana. It’s an illegal drug and much of it is distributed by gangsters and racketeers.”
“I’m no drug taker, but I know the term- they say it’s ‘laced’, the marijuana is laced with other things.”
“Most students, I notice, are staying away from LSD, even a lot of hippies. They’re right to be scared.”
Paul and Charlie decide they don’t want to take any more marijuana trips with Tom. The End.
Sign It Was Written in 1969 department: Literally every aspect signifies nothing but 1969. But I guess if I have to pick one, I’ll go with conflating marijuana and LSD in the service of scaring teens straight.
Unexplained Department: I was baffled by the reference to “sniffing” marijuana, so I put the question to a panel of experts, A/K/A the three other people sitting in the hot tub. Verdict: it will not produce the desired effect.