Fast Times At Ridgemont High: A True Story By Cameron Crowe

These kids are, uh, the future of America.

Back to school! Slightly late, both in that it is the end of September and that Cameron Crowe is doing it uncover at the age of 22.

Like Lyn Tornabene before him, Cameron Crowe got a book deal to live the life that most of us have idly fantasized about: returning to High School as an adult, in disguise. At 22 Crowe was already a veteran writer, covering the music scene for the likes of Rolling Stone and Creem starting at the age of 14.

Unlike Tornabene, Crowe did his undercover work with the full cooperation of Ridgemont’s (actually Claremont High School in Redondo Beach, CA Edit: as I have been alerted, Crowe went undercover in SAN DIEGO) faculty: he notes in the preface that he was able to win over the Principal when he learns he is a big Kris Kristofferson fan:

“What’s he like?”
“A great guy.” I told him a few Kris stories.

Crowe notes that as a “transfer student” he is completely ignored for the first month, and finds his project going nowhere fast. Not until he meets senior Linda Barrett, who quickly sizes him up and takes him under her wing is he accepted into the circle of teenagers who will become Fast Times main characters: Linda’s younger BFF, Stacy; Stacy’s older brother, Brad; lovesick Mark “The Rat” Ratner; The Rat’s would-be ladies man buddy Mike Damone; surfer-stoner Jeff Spicoli; and football star Charles Jefferson, one of the few black students on campus.

Like Tornabene, Crowe quickly reverts to an adolescent state:

I found it all too easy to recapture one’s adolescence. The hard part was growing up again.

Enrolling as a senior for the 1979-1980 school year, Crowe himself doesn’t appear in the book, taking a fly-on-the-wall approach as the students confess their schemes, troubles and triumphs.

While he insists “all of the incidents are true”, some of the plot threads defy credulity; but he always has the utmost respect and affection for his subjects, noting:

The only time these students acted like kids was when they were around adults.

Of course, the book has been completely eclipsed by the 1982 film, with a screenplay by Crowe, that featured star-making turns by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Judge Reinhold and Sean Penn. The movie is much more conventional in its plotting and less rich in its characterizations; upon its initial release Roger Ebert praised the performances but dismissed the film as a “scuz-pit”, and he’s not wrong. Re-watching the movie, it really leans heavily on Sean Penn’s Spicoli- and his delivery of every line is pure gold. But what if I told you Spicoli was even funnier on the printed page?

As an actual adult, Crowe also is sympathetic towards Ridgemont’s teachers, sleuthing out the sources of their eccentricities. Most notable of these is Mr. Hand, a “teacher-teacher” who doesn’t go in for the newfangled “contract system” that most of the teachers have adopted for grading:

“Pakalo?” It was Hawaiian for Do you understand?

Most people in high school look like their names. Mr. Hand was a perfect example. He had a porous, oblong face, just like a thumbprint. His stiff black hair rose up off his forehead like a late-night television evangelist. Even at eight in the morning, his yellow Van Heusen shirt was soaked at the armpits.

And he was not Hawaiian.

Mr. Hand, it turns out, idolizes Steve McGarrett, the detective played by Jack Lord on “Hawaii Five-O”:

Substitute truancy for drug traffic, missed tests for robbery, U.S. History for Hawaii, and you had a class with Mr. Hand. Little by little his protean personality had been taken over by McGarrett. He became possessed by “Five-O”. He even got out of his Oldsmobile sedan in the mornings at full stand, whipping his head both ways like McGarrett.

(If you know to look for it, you can catch a little Lord-as-McGarett in Ray Walston’s performance as Mr. Hand in the movie.)

The book is mostly plotless, although the main teenagers’ stories entwine at various points, and the incidents are mostly similar to what happens in the movie, although wildly different in tone.

14-year-old Stacy, on a mission to lose her virginity before high school starts, “picks up” a much older customer at her job as a hostess at a mall ice cream parlor, leading to a  disappointing encounter in the dugout at the school baseball field. Fellow underclassman The Rat falls “in love” with Stacy and fruitlessly pursues her, advised by Damone, a transfer from the mean streets of Philadelphia “where women are fast and life is cheap.”

Senior and BMOC Brad is looking forward to taking it easy his final year of high school, cruising around in his vintage Buick LaSabre, and devoting himself to his job as the “main fryer” at the best location of Carl’s Jr. in town, where he has gained enough status and goodwill with the assistant manager to hire on most of his friends.

In fact, what might be the most jarring aspect of the book (and the changes over the last 40 years) is that almost everyone from the age of 14 and up has a job, and the importance they place on that job: school, sex- and social-lives definitely play second fiddle to making a buck.

Charles Jefferson, the best player on Ridgemont’s pathetic football team, is one of the only teens without a job. Barely glimpsed in the movie, Jefferson gets a way more extensive storyline in the book. Ridgemont’s last (and ever-only) hope for a championship season, Jefferson has been recruited to play for UCLA, and furnished with a full scholarship and a brand-new Ford Mustang. But fed up with years of low-key racism, at the beginning of the year, Jefferson has simply opted out of high school athletics, much to the Ridgemont coaches’ consternation.

After a series of improbable events, in which Jefferson’s 13-year-old brother and Jeff Spicoli steal-and-wreck the Mustang and successfully frame a rival high school for its destruction, Jefferson’s school spirit is inflamed and he makes a glorious return, giving Ridgemont their best season yet… until the night before championship game, when he and “some dudes” are arrested in the midst of burgling a Radio Shack and he’s sent to juvie, never to be spoken of in the halls of Ridgemont again.

Spicoli is the other character without gainful employment. Unlike the portrayal by 22-year old Sean Penn, 15-year-old Spicoli is in no way beloved by his classmates at Ridgemont, his stoner antics having outstayed their welcome back in the 8th grade. Shambling into the last day of his Public Speaking class to make up an Incomplete and give a “demonstrative or informative” speech he announces

“I wanna tell you about bongs.”

Students stole anxious looks at Mrs. George to check her reaction. We went through this phase in junior high.

When Mrs. G starts quizzing Spicoli on his bong-knowledge (she seems to be far more of a connoisseur than he) and class starts laughing, Spicoli goes berserk…

The class was definitely laughing at him, Spicoli decided. His face now taking on a distinct red tint, he responded by plucking a medallion off his chest. He then launched into the most incredible Jeff Spicoli story anyone could remember.

“See this necklace?” Spicoli said, looking to all parts of his audience. “MICK JAGGER gave me this necklace.”

While Crowe doesn’t specifically draw attention to the fact, Spicoli is pretty much constantly committing crimes- and he gets away with them while Jefferson does not. In fact, when the school’s Dean of Discipline Lt. Flowers, an ex-cop from Chicago, busts Spicoli for smoking pot in the school parking lot, his parents successfully sue the school district because an over-zealous Flowers pulled a gun on him.

Most of the Ridgemont teens are pretty square (Brad is thrilled when his looks are compared to “a young Ronald Reagan”), but the girls are definitely the ones who are portrayed as worldly-wise, while the guys (not just Rat and Damone, but even Brad) are fumbling virgins.

Linda gets an expansive backstory: having become the biggest coke dealer at Paul Revere Junior High, she declares herself done with high school boys when a bunch of her alleged friends dump her at the mall after closing hours when she overdoses. After being sent to rehab at 13, she is on the straight and narrow, deliberately befriending Stacy as the safest choice for a BFF.

As in the movie, Stacy has a few stilled dates with the adoring Rat, before having a casual sexual encounter with Damone, getting pregnant, and going for an abortion, which is treated with a little more lasting impact in the book. Ever-loyal, Linda sets out to ruin Damone’s reputation by keying PRICK PRICK PRICK into his beloved car.

Graduating seniors barely give a second thought to college until practically June, Brad included. After being fired from Carl’s Jr., he takes on a series of less and less desirable fast-food jobs, before ending up at the bottom of the barrel: overnights at 7-Eleven. But when the store is robbed his first week on the job, Brad becomes righteously pissed off about the hand he has been dealt and disarms the robber, turning himself into a folk hero at Ridgemont (and a district manager for 7-Eleven).

Concluding the book are a few truly spectacular chapters about the anthropological significance of Disneyland, which could have been an entire book unto themselves (as an East Coast resident for most of my life, Disneyland is as baffling a Californian phenomenon as The Manson Family).

Bringing all of the characters together (including a mysteriously re-appearing Jefferson) for Grad Night, an annual event in which Disneyland after hours is turned over high school seniors from all over the western U.S., with the proviso they not smuggle in any drugs or alcohol and come attired in formalwear. Things go expectedly awry.

Damone has pre-arranged for liquor to be smuggled in and hidden on Tom Sawyer Island, but is foiled when the Island is closed to parkgoers for the evening. Caught rafting over to retrieve it, he is taken to Disneyland Jail, where his parents are called (although he had the foresight to fill out his forms with the phone number for a local radio station’s request line); thinking on his feet he fakes a seizure, and while Disneyland Police are distracted, he flees.

Meanwhile Rat has spent the evening “entertaining” a couple of foxy girls from Flagstaff in their motel room.

The book ends when the school year ends, although not as neatly as the movie ties up the loose ends. Rat and Stacy do not get together (he’s too busy planning a trip to Flagstaff), Damone doesn’t really get his comeuppance (although he does have a VD scare), Brad puts off college for a year, Linda reconsiders her engagement to her older boyfriend, and Spicoli definitely does not save Brooke Shields from drowning nor hires Van Halen to play at his birthday party.

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9 Responses to Fast Times At Ridgemont High: A True Story By Cameron Crowe

  1. Michael Pallamary says:

    Correction: Clairemont High is in San Diego.

  2. Sims says:

    As a born and raised SoCal resident who grew up 5 minutes from Disneyland and had her grad night there in 2010, I so wish I was born not in 1992 but in 1972 so I could’ve lived through high school in 80’s SoCal

  3. JT says:

    Just came across this post – thanks for the walk down memory lane. I read the book back in the late-80’s and wish I still had it – they go for a fair amount of money now.

    Loved the Grad night part of the book. I grew up in Northern California and went to Grad night in 1980. There was definitely some booze and pot smuggled in 😉

    We did the “hide a bottle” at few music festivals in the area in years past – the idea lifted from this book. It took some advance planning to know the layouts – fencing, stages, pathways, etc. You don’t want to bury a bottle only to return during the festival to find that it is under a stage or right by the security tent ;).

    Fortunately today’s festivals have a wide variety or beverage options and I can afford the prices. So gone are the days of advanced research and evening trips to the chosen location to bury the treasure, then later consulting the map and digging up a buried bottle in a crowded festival – only to end up sharing it with a bunch of new (and free-loading) friends who saw you dig it up.

  4. Dwayne Schamp says:

    Uh no, Clairemont High in Clairemont, San Diego ,CA. Great journalism!

  5. Greg Trent says:

    LOL, fun to see the corrections. Yep, CHS. I was class of ’80 there, Crowe was in one of my classes. What a difference forty or so years make, eh?

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