These players… could be anybody’s kids; bright young college students sent out to prepare for life, given the American Dream and rejecting it to live in a fantasy world on invented terrors.
Background: Rona Jaffe is best known for her first novel, The Best of Everything, about a group of young women rising (and falling) in the New York City’s cutthroat publishing world, published in 1958 and followed by a successful film adaptation a year later (much later the book spawned both a short-lived daytime soap and an off-Broadway play).
So, Jaffe initially seems like an odd choice to tap for a quickie cash-in on the media circus surrounding a runaway teenage prodigy and the moral panic surrounding the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.
The Plot: I say “initially” (and picked the paperback cover art above) because despite being sold as a quickie cash-in on a sensationalized news story and D&D-related Satanic Panic, it is mostly a soap opera about a group of college students rebelling against and coping with the choices made by their (yes, often-terrible) parents, with a large dash of romantic entanglements thrown in.
Set at the fictional Grant College in Pennsylvania, the book opens with the return of three Sophomores from their summer vacation: sixteen-year-old genius Jay Jay Brockway, nascent feminist Kate Finch, and ladies’ man Daniel Goldsmith.
This unlikely group came together the previous year over their shared love of Mazes and Monsters, the table-top role-playing game that we learn is really popular on campus. First to arrive on campus, Jay Jay’s immediate concern is finding a fourth player, as one of their group had flunked out of school, throwing a wrench into their plans for the year:
At the end of last year they had decided that this year they would all get single rooms, but Michael would room with Daniel and they would use the extra room just to play the game.
They would have their own fantasy world just for themselves and no one would know. But the dummy had been so involved in the game that he stopped going to classes, stop studying, and blew it.
But this problem is quickly resolved with arrival of Freshman Robbie Wheeling, who is quickly seduced by Kate’s wiles:
He’s played Mazes and Monsters so often that between that and swimming and the year book was lucky he got into any college at all.
“You play M and M?”
“I was up to third when everybody left for college.”
“Wow! So are we. Didn’t you see our notice downstairs on the bulletin board?”
For a moment Robbie panicked. He was going to do badly in college in he started playing the game; he wasn’t that brilliant to begin with. But he didn’t want to lose this girl, not yet.
So, pretty much the least-realistic part of this book is the plot hinges on a guy who starts playing D&D (excuse me, “M and M”) in order to impress a girl.
As I mentioned, the bulk of the book is your basic soap opera, which is pretty well done, as the young people deal with their parents (absentee, alcoholic, and so forth) and various romantic configurations. Kate is still bitter about last year’s break up with her boyfriend, as well dealing with the trauma of fending off a laundry-room rapist. Jay Jay has angst about being younger than everyone else, and over-compensates by adopting an outlandish persona that involves wild parties and a large collection of hats. Daniel is the most normal, but feels pressure from his parents to use his computer skills to save the world. And Robbie is hiding the fact that his mother is an alcoholic and his older brother ran away from home and hasn’t been heard from in ten years.
Robbie joins the group and begins playing as “Pardieu the Holy Man”, beginning the game that Daniel, in his capacity of Maze Controller, had created for them over the summer. I suspect Jaffee literally did a “find and replace” with a thesaurus. It is noted that Jay Jay has already memorized both The Encyclopedia of Monsters and Creature Compendium Advanced Edition III.
So, it’s no surprise to the reader that it is Jay Jay that starts craving more excitement that MC Daniel can deliver and starts looking for bigger “kicks”. He hits on the idea of playing M and M in the forbidden caverns near campus. There is literally a sign in front of them that says “DANGEROUS CAVERNS”.
Taking it upon himself to explore, Jay Jay declares the site “So Tolkien!” and in a very specific detail, leaves a trail of Pepperidge Farm Croutons behind him as he explores.
Jay Jay accidentally-on-purpose kills off his character in Daniel’s game, then springs his plan on the rest of the gang. They are going to be LARPers now!
Returning to college after Christmas (we’ll get to those chapters in a minute), everyone eagerly dives into Jay Jay’s version of the game (which involves him borrowing a human skeleton from a pre-med student….), but they start to notice that not all seems to be well with Robbie. He has been dating Kate for some months at this point, but that relationship goes on the skids when he announces that he’s taken a vow of chastity.
He had also stopped eating meat, which as far as she was concerned was a good idea. Apparently having no sex, no meat, and no alcohol was healthful- Robbie seemed suffused with a pale glow. Kate knew she should be pleased, but somehow it made her uneasy.
Before, he had been sweet; now he was almost saintly.
Kate is concerned that he’s going to join the Hare Krishnas, but really Robbie is confusing reality and fantasy: he really thinks he is Pardieu The Holy Man.
He’s also having constant dreams about his long-lost brother, Hall, who appears as an even-Holier-than-thou Man, instructing Robbie on how to undertake the quest to find him.
Which is why, just before spring break, Robbie goes missing, having taken himself on a quest that lands him in the darkest of Times Square.
This seems like a good place to mention that the book was made into a made-for-TV movie and cast an unknown comedian who never amounted to much as Robbie. Guided by the vision of his brother, it features a dramatic climax in which his friends arrive just in time to keep him from jumping off the observation deck at the World Trade Center; the book takes a much less dramatic route and has Robbie abruptly come to his senses and call his friends from Covenant House.
Later that summer they go to visit a recovered Robbie at his parents’ in Greenwich. After an interminable visit with his mother, they go to find Robbie- and he’s not recovered at all!
“Freelik!” Robbie cried. “I thought you were dead. Did you not die when you leaped into the pit? Ah, I know- you are Freelik’s son!”
Kate looked at Daniel. His eyes were very sad. Then he nodded. “I am the Maze Controller,” Daniel said. “This is the…”
And so they played the game again, for one last time. It did not matter that there were no maps or dice, no rule books, or even that there were no monsters. All of the evil that had ever existed was real again in Robbie’s mind, and so when Daniel said there were Gorvils to enchant or kill, Pardieu saw them. The others did not see them. They saw nothing but the death of a hope and the loss of their friend.
The faux-D&D and Robbie’s journey into the underbelly of 1980s New York City is all pretty silly, and Jaffe really shines in the lengthy middle section, which is devoted to the history and miserable present of everyone’s parents.
Kate’s Mom got an especially raw deal, when her husband had a mid-life crisis and left her for a 20-year-old. Now trying to get back into the dating scene herself, she accepts a set up with “California’s most eligible bachelor”:
The first thing he said to her was that he was dismayed she had cut her hair. He said he had preferred it curly; it was sexy, like pubic hair.
Then he takes her to a disco sex club:
He took her to a bar called Fantasy: wall-to-wall mirrors, blue red, and green lights reflecting off them, a young man in a full length mink coat leaning languidly against a white piano.
Then the colored lights in the bar swirled around and a floor show started, It was an S&M show. Whips and chains. Meg walked out and took a taxi home.
Kate’s father’s new swinging lifestyle is also hilarious and terrible (he has a hot tub AND a jacuzzi) and he insists upon over-sharing about his needs as a man. Gross.
Like most quickie cash-ins on moral panics, knowing the real story is also a bummer. Jaffe based her story on a University of Michigan student who attempted suicide, then ran away from campus when it was unsuccessful. Reported missing, the story was widely covered in the media, especially rumors that he had been playing D&D in the campus’s underground steam tunnels. Eventually located by a private detective and returned to his family; he committed suicide a year later.
Sign It Was Written In 1981 Department:
Kate thought how much Daniel looked like John Travolta- he was probably the best-looking guy in the dorm.
Her father, in his new incarnation as a swinging single- his hair grown long, aviator sunglasses, a Perrier T-Shirt a size too large that still didn’t hide his little pot belly.