Four of his friends are dead. Only Jason survives….
Background: Todd Strasser has been writing YA novels for over 30 years, spanning such topical issues as Angel Dust, school shootings, and abuses at “boot camps” for juvenile delinquents. However, he is still probably best known (under the pen name Morton Rhue) for The Wave, a novelization of a Norman Lear-produced ABC Afterschool Special, which was based on a short story by teacher Ron Jones, which he based on his real-life experience of turning a bunch of regular high school students in Palo Alto into Hitler Youth as part of history class experiment in the 1960s.
Unfortunately, that novel never quite lived up to its premise for me, although many readers remember it fondly. So I was pleasantly surprised that this ordinary-looking teen thriller turned out to be packed with suspense, social commentary and notably well-developed characters.
The Plot: High school senior Matt Thompson has two things going for him- his star-status on the high school swim team, and his friendship with local Rich Kid Bobby Stewart, the nephew of a state senator. With the exception of the Stewarts, every other family in town is struggling to makes ends meet since the collapse of the local mining industry.
Matt lives in a downscale apartment complex populated exclusively by single moms with troubled teenaged offspring, with his mother (a paralegal living fear of looming layoffs) and metalhead younger brother. Matt’s problems are relatable. He has a nagging girlfriend, Karen, that has become part of the family since her single mother started working second shift at an aluminum factory; a childhood friend, Chris, that is having more and more run-ins with the local cops; and a rivalry with New Kid In Town Jason Ellman, who seems to be usurping both his position on the swim team and his friendship with Bobby.
After another evening of frozen TV dinners, (which his brother refers to variously as “barfola”, “vomitsville” and “puke city”, before addressing Matt as “groin-breath”), Matt and Karen argue and impulsively break up.
Depressed after his hasty decision, Matt accepts an invitation from childhood friend and delinquent-next-door Chris Walsh to his underage kegger to take his mind off of his problems. Once close friends, Matt and Chris have grown apart since Chris has become the town’s number-one burnout, and rumored drug dealer. Matt wonders if the rumors are true when he sees Chris’s brand new Chevy Blazer parked in the driveway, and hears Chris’s vague explanation about having “saved up for it”.
Bobby and Jason join the party in progress, and urge Matt to join them in driving up to Bobby’s family ski lodge in Chris’s truck. Still moping over Karen, Matt misses out because he’s puking in the bathroom when they leave.
Of course, it turns out to be lucky for him, because the next morning everyone learns that the truck rolled over a guardrail in the mountains, killing Bobby, Chris and their girlfriends. Only Jason survives, having been miraculously thrown clear of the wreck.
The entire town turns on Mrs. Walsh when the police report that Chris was behind the wheel, throwing garbage on her lawn and shooting out her front window with a pellet gun. But Matt can’t shake the feeling that the official version isn’t the whole story.
He finds a few allies in investigating the situation, including the Black police officer in charge of the investigation, who may have an interest in bringing down the incredibly racist police department, and the editor of the school paper.
But everyone else from Jason to Bobby’s parents to the swimming coach are acting suspiciously (the Stewarts are buying the school a badly-needed Olympic size pool). And there are limits to the support Matt’s friends and family can give him. His home life becomes strained because his mother and brother can’t bear to constantly hear about the accident. Matt and Karen had reunited, but she dumps him again because he won’t stop talking about it. He loses his supporter at the police department when the one sympathetic ear is suddenly promoted to detective and clams up. Where did Jason get that brand new motorcycle? Why has Coach turned on him?
With a disgusted look on his face Coach Schneider stepped toward Matt and offered him his hand. Matt reached up and Schneider grabbed him by the wrist and yanked hard. A bolt of pain shot through Matt’s shoulder, as if his arm were being pulled out of the socket, but he couldn’t twist out of the coach’s grip. Schneider dragged Matt out of the pool, pulled him a few feet across the rough concrete floor. The skin on Matt’s knees and ankles tore on the cold, wet concrete.
“Wussy.” Schneider turned and walked away.
After Matt anonymously receives a copy of the coroner’s report, showing that Chris’s Blood Alcohol Content would have rendered him pretty much comatose, he suspects that the Stewarts are behind the cover-up. His suspicions are confirmed when he finally thinks to ask Chris’s younger sister Casey, who is autistic but was present at the party, and she is able to confirm his suspicions that Bobby was behind the wheel of Chris’s truck.
Matt decides to confront Bobby’s parents, but the twist ending isn’t what the reader might expect, when Mr. Stewart reveals that Chris’s Mom has been in on the fix the whole time:
“She knew the day after the accident. Her house is for sale and she’s telling people she’s moving to Spokane, but she isn’t. She’s moving to Seattle. There is a private school there that specializes in educating children with learning disabilities. It’s very expensive and very good. Do I have to explain any more?”
Mr. Stewart reveals that this vast conspiracy has the citizenry’s best intentions at heart: Bobby’s uncle is running for governor on a “Just Say No” platform against the incredibly corrupt incumbent, who would surely use Bobby’s death to discredit his opponent and doom Unnamed State to many more years of crooked politics.
Matt agrees to keep the secret, which Mr. Stewart smoothly frames as merely “changing the story”.
He tells his friends and family that he believes the official report, and it must have been his grief over Chris and Bobby’s death that made him see vast conspiracies everywhere.
So, the lesson is that part of being an adult is selling out the reputation of your former BFF for the good of everyone…
NOT SO FAST!
Strasser gets to have it both ways: in an epilogue set a year and a half later Sen. Stewart is safely in the governor’s mansion and Matt and Karen are spending the summer after their freshman year of college back at home. Matt looks up the officer who had been in charge of the investigation and pays him a visit. It turns out that his sudden promotion hasn’t been going down as easy as he would have liked, either. He confirms Matt’s suspicions that he sent him the coroner’s report and give him his blessing to go public with the information.
Matt picks up the phone to call the local paper, and the summer intern that picks up is his old pal from the school newspaper, and has he got a scoop for him…
Sign It was Written In 1988:
The Stewarts lived in a world filled with mansions, chauffeured limousines, and private jets. Maybe they lived by a different set of rules from Matt, or maybe he’d just seen too many episodes of Dallas.