She made a dream come true… now she has to defend it.
This week’s title comes courtesy of my friend Carrie (author, bird enthusiast, endlessly patient soul in the face of my many philosophies regarding Cold War teenage werewolves… truly a class act all the way) and was suggested to me in the wake of the last spring’s YA apocalyptic adventure story-slash-Objectivist political screed The Girl Who Owned a City.
The Plot: Seventeen year old Maria (that’s Muh-rye-ah, not Muh-ree-ah) is introduced in the office of Bryon Godfrey, Esq., the executor of her unseen late father’s estate, informing her that she has inherited an unimaginably vast fortune while simultaneously trying to look down her blouse. Like all things, Maria takes this in stride, although she has big plans for all of that dough: she sees the money as literally a way to buy some time, a way to develop her true self before being corrupted by the influences of the adult world.
After talking things over with her kinda-boyfriend, Seppy, and her BFF Mimimi (not a typo), Maria formulates a plan to buy an entire town, a place for her fellow misfit teens to live communally and think things over before heading into the Real World:
“You know,” Maria said. “all the ones with scorecards. Everyone I have to please, or else. Gimme a break.”
Seppy held up a finger. “All the people who consider themselves to be in a position to do political, economic or sexual favors? Members of the clergy, the medical profession, and police?”
“Welcome to Mariasburg. Population 18- and under.”
Maria eventually settles upon the mountainous ghost town of Jacks-‘r-better, which comes complete with a history of good karma, starting with its founding by lumberjacks in the 19th century (“This was a race of men: independent, hardy, not the kind that liked to live by other people’s rules and judgments”) and then purchased wholesale during World War I by the Sisters of Sanity, a radical pacifist-feminist collective- when the last Sister went to her heavenly reward (defaulting on the property taxes) the town became the property of Hupee County (a fictional county in a fictional state with a vaguely southwestern flavor), which has been unsuccessfully trying to pawn it off on a buyer for years.
Residency in Mariasburg is by invitation only, which is only extended to teenagers who Maria and her friends agree will abide by the somewhat fuzzy ideals they have in mind. They first present the plan to The Guise, the high school’s experimental jazz ensemble, who immediately dig: “You’re talking, like, a social contract, man.”
On moving day, 25 17-year old high school graduates make their way up the mountain and Mariasburg is a ghost town no more.
Maria is a complex heroine in the 1970s style: intelligent and independent, but also prone to making mistakes, as well as being torn between the fact that she’s bankrolling this experiment and the fact that she has no desire whatsoever to be a strong leader who tells people what to do. Mimimi is her closest friend and confidant; Seppy is for the most part an afterthought, someone to not-quite-platonically eat pizza with in your underwear.
Thompson is probably best known for his first novel, The Grounding of Group 6, (in which five troublesome teenagers are sent away by their parents to be grounded… permanently), and he brings a loose, pun-filled prose style matching the plot. Here Maria explains her plan to her mother:
“Cute. Now your daughter is peculiar and perverted. This is the thanks I get for twelve years of Honor Roll, membership and even offices in clubs and teams, a social life untainted by disease or scandal- plus being monarch of the house of mozzarella. Give that record, for you to predict that I’ll do ‘absolutely nothing normal’ in the future is not- oh, no- not just unfair, illogical and… pukey. It is also clearly slanderous. And so my dear, you are disqualified. The court has ruled a mistrial, and you are liable for damages. Not only are you out of time, but you are out of guesses, spins, predictions, and opinions. Pay the bailiff as you leave the room. I thank you.”
Odd (and oddly written) on its own, Mariasburg is even stranger in light of its 1988 publication date: in the age of Sweet Valley High, a semi-satire involving communal living, philosophizing on “common knowledge” and copious bralessness really stands out.
And that’s before we even get to the really dark stuff, like the hunky Hupee County Sheriff that the teens form an uneasy alliance with; or the Defenders of Fate, a doomsday cult that has been stockpiling an arsenal in the mountains above the town.
Sheriff Omar shows up on moving day, dripping faux-concern and in search of the teenage orgies that surely must be going down in a town populated by the barely-legal. He is disappointed, especially when Maria and Mimimi won’t even give his custom-tailored pants the time of day. He’s a letch, showing up every few days to join in the volleyball games and prove how with-it he is, but Maria decides that he’s a non-problem, not “solved” but “inactive”.
The Defenders of Fate are also off her radar, until Sheriff Beefcake shows up and announces that Maria has been granted an unasked-for audience with Sledge, the Mason-lite leader. While Seppy is concerned that Maria is going to end up chained up in a basement, Maria refuses to heed his advice- she wants these loose ends tied up once and for all.
She quickly realizes that this is a miscalculation on her part, when the slight, ineffectual Sledge starts addressing the sheriff as “Brother Omar” and calmly relating the logic behind the constant floggings he doles out to his four wives and 14 children and the coming of a fiery apocalypse. While she’s not going to be held prisoner at the cult compound, she has walked right into the sheriff’s power-play:
He had put the fear in her, by using this man Sledge, this lunatic. If she chose to contradict him now- on any point- the town would be endangered. And, no doubt, her… self, as well.
This does not bode well. Neither does Sheriff Omar’s detour down a back road, which he thinks will be his chance to get Maria to “repay” him (gross), which she does by stealing his riot gun and shooting out the windshield.
Back in town, the teenagers decide that they need to formulate a Plan B, in case Sledge does bring his avenging army down the mountain. Surprisingly (but maybe realistically), they decide they will not stay and fight. Plan B is pretty much “run away”.
But the initial invasion comes not from the doomsday cult, but from The Government: tipped off by an uptight parent, Mariasburg is besieged by agents of the Departments of Licensing, Sanitation, Child Welfare, Education and Fire & Safety. While the adults’ response is mixed (the female agents are especially supportive of Maria’s mission), it seems like the end is near, the dream crushed not by fanatics, but by bureaucracy.
And that is when the fireworks start, as Sledge and his seven sons start firing heavy artillery on the town. When both teenagers and government agents implement Operation Run Away, Maria has a change of heart, and hides in the steeple of the town’s church, where she is joined by Seppy to watch as her town is bombed into oblivion. While they reluctantly put off consummating their feelings for one another (because somebody forgot to bring a condom to a fiery siege!), Maria sees a last-ditch chance when Sledge takes sanctuary in the church, as Maria throws her voice down into the chapel:
“Where is my prophet, Sledge?” Maria, bent back over asked in what just had to be the very much most queenly voice that ever passed her lips.
At last, he found his voice.
“Yes, Lord,” he said. His eyes blinked rapidly. “Here I am, right here. Your servant, Sledge.”
“Well, this is what you now must do…,” Maria said.
Literally The End.
Sign It Was Written In 1988 Department: As a newly Rich Person, Maria dines upon the most baffling of Nouvelle Cuisine:
There were four green beans criss-crossed like tic-tac-toe, with the spaces in between filled either by black ripe olive slices, making o’s or x’s of pure white pasta, neither one victorious. A tiny Boston lettuce leaf supported a single chicken nugget, sculpted in the shape of a frog.