Senior year isn’t the end of high school- it’s the beginning of Life!
This week’s reader request comes from literally my oldest friend, who sent me an Instragam screen shot with the caption HAVE YOU SEEN THIS????
(LOL OF COURSE!!!!)
(Also I am counting that as a “request”)
Background: I have a vague impression of Paul Zindel as an author whose YA work became extremely dated in the 20+ years between its publication and my becoming a YA myself: too aggressively zany, too much casual drinking, too many parents threatening to make you join the Army, too much wrestling with too many vague existential questions. There is also the fact that by the time I had gotten to my freshman year of high school, teachers of a certain age were embracing the fact that standards had relaxed enough that COOL and EDGY novels such as Zindel’s The Pigman were now allowed as part of the curriculum (Catcher in the Rye was another), without considering that anything being taught as part of the curriculum was automatically deeply uncool, and also I already read The Pigman when I was like 11, so I really lacked enthusiasm about Making A Poster To Illustrate The Themes…
Sorry, slipped into Annoying Autobiographical Pause-mode for a second.
(…but are we really cultivating and love and appreciation for literature by making us all pretend to have a TV talk show about Alienation?)
The Plot: Which despite all that, I actually do love Zindel’s work and his disaffected 1970s Staten Island teens- I still think about John and Lorraine every time I’m headed for the Goethals bridge and see the exit for Victory Boulevard.
This was Zindel’s second novel, and like Give and Take, it focuses on two friends about to graduate from high school, the blonde and beautiful Liz Carstensen (stuck with a social-climbing mother and pig of a stepfather) and frumpy, late-blooming Maggie Tobin.
As the book opens, Liz is trying to talk Maggie into some enthusiasm about a double date with Dennis Holowitz:
“Oh, Liz, I thought you were my friend! I wouldn’t go anywhere with him. He looks weird.” He actually was weird-looking, Maggie thought, studying him closely. How skinny! A face like an undernourished zucchini.
Dennis isn’t too thrilled about going with Maggie either, noticing her “strangely small” ears, crookedly-plucked eyebrows, and dime store brooch on an unflattering home-sewn dress:
“It looks like you made it,” Liz said.
“It looks it.”
Along with Liz’s steady, Sean, they attend a screening of the Mondo movie-slash-Jayne Mansfield vehicle Primitive Love, and Dennis gets the idea that Maggie’s uncomfortable squirming is a sign of latent nymphomania:
Dennis tried to watch the picture. Maybe she expects me to go all the way tonight, he thought. She’s quiet, but so was Barbara Johnson, and she entertained eleven seniors in the parking lot behind the Hollywood Diner.
But at some point the reader isn’t privy to, Maggie and Dennis actually hit it off, and Maggie is genuinely remorseful about having to cancel a second date with him to go comfort Liz after she has a fight with her terrible family (who make innuendo about her Going All The Way with Sean) and Sean (who she thinks is trying to pressure her to Go All The Way).
On the way to a local bar with a lax policy of carding teenagers, they catch a ride with two older guys, Don and Rod, who impress Maggie with their Cadillac, good looks, and nice manners (even after Don comments that Maggie’s “got a nice pair of knockers”). Liz isn’t buying it:
“They’re just pigs,” Liz said, taking her hand and leading her toward the flashing sign of the bar. “The one in front, Rod, quit school two years ago after he got a freshman pregnant. Been riding around in the crappy Caddie ever since.”
Maggie sounded like a little girl. “They seemed so nice.”
“They’d beat their mothers for beer money.”
While at the bar Liz pours out her feelings to Sean on a number of paper placemats, including problems with her parents and fears of getting pregnant. She leaves the note in his mail box, when the book jumps ahead a few months to the school’s Winter Starlight Dance, it has become clear that Sean never responded.
While Dennis and Maggie now seem to be a happy couple, Liz is going to the dance with… Rod? And of course her parents think he’s a nice young man from the best family.
Something’s not sitting well about the situation with Maggie, and when Liz and Rod exit the dance to make-out in the art room, Maggie calls Sean and demands to know why he never answered Liz’s placemats. He never received them.
Sean arrives at the dance just in time to save Liz from being raped by Rod, but when the car breaks down on the way home and her stepfather calls her a tramp when she calls to tell them they will be late, she decides to chuck respectability to the wind and stays out all night with Sean.
The narrative picks up in April, and now Liz is three months pregnant. Once again, she talks Maggie into putting her life on hold to help her- in this case canceling her date with Dennis for the prom and putting the money for her dress towards an illegal abortion. At which point the reader is thinking that maybe Maggie should stop being such a good friend, especially when Dennis is crushed when she cancels without explanation:
Oh, God, what was wrong with him? He thought everything had been going along fine. He would’ve asked her to go steady. Maybe that’s why she broke the date, he thought. She knew they were getting to that point. Perhaps someone else had asked her. Perhaps she had been using him all these months, just waiting for someone else to come along. Anybody. Anybody better than Dennis Holowitz. I’m so ugly, he thought. Ugly. I’m sick. I’m ashamed. My clothes are ugly. My face is ugly. My body is ugly. What am I doing alive? I always come back to this point.
When Liz finally tells Sean about the pregnancy, he surprises her by asking her to get married, and they start hammering out a scheme to go to college in California, returning at some point in the future already married and with a “premature” baby.
But Sean impulsively decides to ask for advice “for a friend” from his father, who has already shown himself to be a Neanderthal and a creep.
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Collins, suggests that Sean’s “friend” is about to be trapped and suggests a course of threats and blackmail:
“Then you get a few friends.”
“Yep. You get a few friends. You only need a few. Get ‘em to call the girl or go up and talk to her. She’ll get the point and get scared.”
But Sean is rattled, and goes to Liz with his savings and instructions to procure an abortion.
She wanted to fling it at him. But now it was a matter of saving herself- not love or hate or anything else. She opened her pocketbook and put the money inside.
Rod takes her to the same doctor he took his ex-girlfriend to, reluctantly agreeing to allow Maggie to accompany them. When Liz starts hemorrhaging on the way home, Maggie ignores her pleas and calls an ambulance, saving her friend’s life, but revealing her secret to basically the entire town.
On graduation day Liz is absent, Maggie has frozen Sean out, and she and Dennis never patched things up between them, although both seemed to have outgrown their respective awkward phases at last. Maggie even accepts a date from Pierre, the handsome-but-square class president.
After the ceremony she briefly runs into Dennis, and tells him good-bye, assuring him “I’ll always remember you.”
Coming in at a breathless 122 pages in paperback, Zindel is at his best when describing the insecurities and inadequacies of his teenaged heroes (in Zindel’s canon, most adults and all parents are just THE WORST) … although one question remains unanswered: how did Liz get Catherine Usherer’s birth certificate????
Sign It Was Written In 1969:
“I spoke to this girl from my Gym class who just got here from California and she said UCLA is the best. So you were right. And we can get an apartment- a decent one without cockroaches- for seventy-five dollars a month. I could earn that myself and still save for the hospital bills…”