Dinky isn’t addicted to heroin, but she does have a big problem…
I hadn’t looked at the calendar when I planned this one, so I hope you’re ready for a big Valentine bummer, Constant Readers!
Background: “M.E. Kerr” is one of a half-dozen pseudonyms of the incredibly prolific Marijane Meaker, whose 60+ year career includes scores of novels, short stories and non-fiction collections across a number of genres (as Vin Packer she penned the inaugural lesbian pulp title Spring Fire in 1952). A contemporary and colleague of Louise Fitzhugh and Paul Zindel, this was her first foray into YA, and remains her best-known work.
The Plot: And like the last Kerr title reviewed here, I was kind of annoyed with it at first, because everyone comes out of the box AGRESSIVELY WACKY, starting with our main character, 15 year old Tucker Woolf, who has just moved to Brooklyn Heights from Manhattan, after his father has lost his job as a fundraising executive, which forces his mother to “temporarily” return to the workforce as an editor, this time at a confession mag called Stirring Romances, which publishes stories like “I Left My Husband For a Jesus Freak” and “I Married the Devil: He Wanted Me to Sleep in a Coffin”.
Tucker has adopted a stray cat, which he names after Ralph Nader (SO WACKY), but soon has to rehome when his father proves to be allergic to it, which is how Tucker meets Dinky, also age 15.
Which is also the SECOND point that I became annoyed, because Kerr makes the mistake that a lot of writers dealing with the subject make: she tells us exactly how fat Dinky Hocker, the fattest girl Brooklyn Heights, is- 5’4” and 165 pounds. So, you know, if you’re a fat YA reading this book, you now know that you are in fact fatter than the fattest girl in Brooklyn Heights! UGH.
After this rocky start, there is a lot to be enjoyed, as Tucker and Dinky end up spending a lot of time together, a sort of joint custody of Nader, and an escape from their family troubles.
Dinky mother is sort of a socialite do-gooder, running a group for ex-junkie teens and “little ghetto children” that practices “Rebirth Therapy”, in which the ex-junkies playact at reemerging from the womb. The Hockers manage to neglect their daughter while controlling her social life.
Staying with the Hocker’s is Dinky’s teenage cousin, Natalia Line, who’s going through “family troubles” which nobody will talk about, and also is suffering from David and Lisa disease, which causes her to speak in rhyme when she gets anxious:
There was something old-fashioned about the girl. She was wearing a navy-blue jumper and a while blouse with long, billowing sleeves… Her hair was black, and it spilled down past her shoulders. Her eyes were green like Nader’s and her skin was very smooth and very white.
Tucker is immediately smitten (of course) and he and Natalia connect over a game he invents, in which they fill in cartoon speech balloons, avoiding awkward conversation:
It suddenly occurred to him that Dinky had purposely butted in every time he asked Natalia a question about herself. It suddenly dawned on him that Dinky was actually protecting Natalia in some way, and this was a side of Dinky which Tucker had never seen before.
Tucker is also surprised to learn that Natalia holds her cousin in high regard:
“There’s nothing wrong with Dinky’s glands,” Natalia said. “She’s fat because every afternoon she goes to every restaurant in the Heights and eats something in each one. No one ever sees all she eats, because she never eats all she eats in one place.”
“She’s not supposed to eat out,” Tucker said. He had heard Dinky’s mother say that often enough.
“She does all her eating out,” Natalia said. “She’s sly. I like that.”
He’d go along thinking that Natalia was just gossiping like any other catty female, and then it would turn out that she was secretly admiring the very behavior Tucker though she was criticizing.
Tucker eventually gets up the nerve to ask Natalia to his school’s 1950’s-themed Holiday Dance, but she only agrees to go if he finds a date for Dinky. Notably lacking imagination, the only person that Tucker can think of is the fattest boy in his Creative Writing class, P. John Knight.
P. John (of whom Kerr notes is six feet tall and weighs 220 WHICH IS STILL NOT ACTUALLY FAT) is the son of a famous Leftist writer, which is why he goes by his middle name, because P. John announces
“I have a few solid opinions. Law and order. Better dead than red. If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns…”
This being 1971, P. John’s reactionary opinions are merely quirky and precious, not a reason to notify the FBI, even though he raises the ire of Tucker’s father by admitting that in terms of Hitler…
“I don’t agree with him all the way down the line, but he didn’t cozy up to the Communists like a lot of jelly-spined liberals.”
Things go worse, parent-wise, at the Hockers’ when they make small talk about the 1950’s theme of the dance and P. John proclaims, “One of my heroes is from the fifties, Senator Joseph McCarthy, the great crusader against Communism,” and waves away Mr. Hocker’s offer of taxi fare, announcing “I am one of the few New Yorkers not on the dole.”
Oh, P. John, you are just TOO MUCH.
Tucker had been ducking P. John’s questions about Dinky before the dance and expects to get bawled out for setting him up with a fat chick, but instead P. John is delighted that Susan (he refuses to use her nickname) is his intellectual equal. While Tucker worries that Natalia is going to think he’s a Sex Maniac and they pass an uncomfortable evening making awkward small talk, Susan and P. John are the social hit of the night:
Every time Tucker looked up, he seemed to see Dinky and P. John gliding by like the Sweetheart Couple at the Valentine Ball. They didn’t even look fat.
The teenagers’ lives are complicated by their parents and various other adults in their lives. Tucker’s father has decided to go into business with his brother-in-law, an out-of-work actor and full-time alcoholic grifter named “Jingle” Bell. When the two have wildly divergent ideas about the Health Food store they plan on opening, Mrs. Woolf admits “I suspect Jingle is going to ruin our future.”
P. John (whom Mr. Woolf refers to as “your friend the Nazi”) is neglected by his own widowed father, who has a giant photo of Mao hanging in the kitchen and treats their apartment like a crash pad for his various hippie friends from “the coast”. He can relate to Susan’s problems:
“He really likes it that I’m fat,” P. John said. “It’s the only way he can feel superior to me.”
Do-gooding Mrs. Hocker does not care for P. John at all, especially when he and Susan join Weight Watchers and he expresses contempt for her attempts to rehabilitate drug addicts (he’s been mugged too many times) and after Susan turns down a piece of cake at a Rebirth Therapy graduation, her mother insists and he “ordered her to refuse it.” The ex-Junkie whose mother baked the cake takes offense and the two physically tussle, resulting in the Hockers forbidding Susan to continue to see him.
The relationship between P. John and Susan is complicated. Mrs. Hocker insists that he is too controlling and looks at her as a weight-loss project. When she buys P. John a watch for Christmas, to replace the one that was mugged for, her mother finds out and forces her to return it.
But P. John also really likes Susan, constantly pestering Tucker to pass messages to her and deliver his Christmas present to her (it’s Jean Nidetch’s Weight Watchers cookbook, very 1972).
The first blow-up on Christmas is when Tucker joins the Hockers for dinner and Mrs. Hocker forces Tucker to give Susan and Natalia the gifts in front of everyone, and she openly mocks the cookbook as so romantic…
“Do you see I’m right now? You thought I was very hard on Dinky. But this friend of Dinky’s- and that’s all he ever was, a friend- was primarily interested in her weight problem…. He was solely interested in exercising his authority over you.”
When Susan sneaks out to go to P. John’s, her parents call the police, which results in the Knights’ apartment getting raided and a couple of his Dad’s friends arrested and deported. When the Hockers find out that he is Famous Leftist Writer Perry Knight, they pledge to use all their influence to help the arrested/deported friends. P. John’s father blames his son for the whole thing, and P. John decides to leave.
“I’m going away. I have an Aunt in Maine. I’m going to go there. I’ll probably stay there.”
“Are you going to tell your father?”
“He suggested it.”
And at the end of the night Tucker gets word that Uncle Jingle fell asleep smoking in the Health Food store the night before the grand opening and burned it to the ground.
There are no easy answers for anyone. P. John is disappointed that his Aunt sends him to a communal hippie school and continues to badger Tucker into getting Susan to write him.
Natalia and Tucker grow closer, as she admits that the “family problems” the Hockers refuse to speak of are her is mother in a mental hospital and her father committed suicide, for which Natalia feels incredibly guilty for not seeing any warning signs.
Susan becomes even more abrasive and reclusive, not to mention fatter, and is embarrassed when a newly trim P. John arrives back in Brooklyn with a new pro-Labor attitude from his time as a student organizer at the hippie school. Hoping to surprise her, he catches her off guard in her bathrobe, and she defensively sneers at him. Someone at least has gained some self-awareness:
“I’m very ashamed of her,” Mrs. Hocker said.
“Let her go,” P. John said. “I don’t think she needed a surprise like this.”
This is the incident that finally pushes her over the edge. The following night, her mother is due to receive a community award for her work with “little ghetto children” and Susan is strangely absent from the awards banquet. When the ceremony is over the crowds walk out into a Brooklyn Heights that has had every inch covered in Day-Glo graffiti:
DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK
DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK
DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK
Tucker and Natalia race back to the Hockers where they find a paint-covered Susan in the midst of making her getaway, and really lets them have it about bringing P. John by:
“How could you let me waddle out in all my glory in front of that thinned-down storm trooper, who only came here to show off his weight loss in the first place.”
“He came to see you…”
“He wanted to say hello,” Natalia said.
“What if you’d gone crazier, instead of getting better? Would you like a surprise like that if you’d gone crazier? I got fatter since he saw me last, in case you haven’t noticed. And that was a nice fat surprise!”
Ever-sensitive, Natalia hustles Tucker out of there (“She’s about to break down and bawl. I know her. She hates to have people see her cry.”)
Tucker encounters Mr. Hocker on the way home and is evasive about how much he knows about what has happened, but eventually admits that Susan is at home.
And… that’s it.
The final chapter picks up at the end of the summer, as the Woolfs leave for a camping trip. We learn that Mrs. Hocker quit all of her charities, and they have taken Susan to Europe to try and mend the familial wounds. The Woolfs forgave Jingle for burning down the store, and Tucker’s father is back in the fundraising business, while his mother is attending night school at Brooklyn Law. Mr. Woolf’s allergies resolved, so Nader is living back with Tucker. And as for his relationship with Natalia… well, that’s kinda all on hold until school resumes in the fall.
I HAVE to say a few words about the ABC Afterschool Special that adapted the story in 1978 (and re-ran forever as part of Nickelodeon’s Special Delivery series). Trimmed to a mere 32 minutes, it sidelines or eliminates most of the characters, and Natalia’s entire backstory. A lot of Kerr’s goofy humor is gone, and while the climax is somehow EVEN MORE dramatic, it also tacks on a completely unbelievable “happy ending”.
What it does have going for it is some really strong performances, including The Waltons’ Jon Wamsley, who is sooooo cuuuuute as Tucker, Wendie Jo Sperber (who is radiant) as Dinky and the secret weapon, June Lockhart (Lassie’s mom!) as a cheerfully malevolent Mrs. Hocker, gamely warning of the dangers of “the worst drug of all, Heroin, which is also called ‘horse’ and ‘smack’.”
Seriously guys, June Lockhart is SO MEAN in this!