Fat Jack By Barbara Cohen

“A person never gets over high school, Judy.”

fat jack - Copy

I’ve written before about my general impression of YA fiction moving from topical issues based on shock value in the 1970s (Drugs! Cults! Satan!) and into more internal crises of the characters in the 1980s; Fat Jack, published in 1980 really strikes me as a transitional piece between these two eras. It sets up a few sensational topics, a potential scandal and a teenage betrayal, but then is ultimately about adults maybe or maybe not regretting the choices they made.

The Plot: Opening in the present day of 1980, thirtysomething Judy Goldstein catches up over dinner with an old classmate, Jack Muldoon. Judy has attended a recent high school reunion and expresses the shared disappointment of her classmates that Jack, a successful and Emmy-winning TV writer hadn’t attended.

“They all remembered the play… They all remembered you.”

This seems to be a painful point for Jack, and he and Judy verbally skirmish over an as-yet unnamed “betrayal”. Agreeing to finally talk it out, their respective spouses conveniently out of town, Jack and Judy start a full postmortem on their friendship and high school experience.

Even more than the fact that he weighs over 300 pounds, Jack is cursed by transferring to Carbondale High School in the October of his senior year, making him a target for the mean girls that share his bank of lockers. When Judy witnesses queen bees Joan and Margo attaching a bottle of deodorant to his locker door along with a note that he smells, she is finally compelled to intervene. Jack catches Judy fiddling with the deodorant and initially dismisses her  as one more bully, before finally accepting her explanation and they strike up an acquaintance.

Joan and Margo, having witnessed this interaction, of course make a huge thing out of how Judy must LIKE him.

Judy mostly shrugs it off- she has accepted the fact that after 4 years she’s a social flop at Carbondale High, her grade school friends from the neighborhood having ascended socially by way of sports or indulgent parents and now ignore her. Judy has carved out her niche as an academic, content with playing maiden aunts in the school play and counting down the days until graduation.

Miss DeLorenzo, everyone’s favorite teacher, throws a wrench into the former when she announces that she is getting married (at 35!) and is scaling back her extracurriculars. Always speaking frankly to her students (“We loved her but we didn’t expect anyone else to”) she suggests to the concerned would-be thespians in class to ask Mr. Sharf if he would direct the much-anticipated Senior Play.

The suggestion baffles them:

Mr. Sharf seemed an unlikely prospect. He was a short, thin man, with large protuberant blue eyes, thinning blond hair and a not unpleasant, but cool and distant manner. He was the librarian, and that was odd in itself. He was the first male librarian in the history of Carbondale High School.

After Miss DeLorenzo shares that he has an extensive theatrical background, Judy and select members of the student council decide to propose the idea to him. When they pay a visit to him, he listens, but turns them down flat. Jack (not part of the committee, but working as a library aide) intervenes, and initially Mr. Sharf is just as dismissive toward him:

“I know you’re interested in theater, Jack, but you have no experience.”

Jack stood his ground. “There are a lot of actors in my father’s family,” he said. “More important, I’ve read a lot. You know that.”

Mr. Sharf seems to reconsider and promises to meet with the committee the next day with his answer. Judy heads to the public library for a copy of Who’s Who to try and figure out who Jack’s relatives might be.

The next day Jack confirms Judy’s suspicions that he’s part of a Barrymore-like theatrical dynasty: although his own late father was never successful, his uncle is a famous stage and movie idol.

And so, Judy is surprised when Mr. Sharf has Jack join the committee at the after-school meeting to discuss the Senior Play and he instantly seems wary. Mr. Sharf announces his stipulations for accepting the role of director: that he will have complete control over the production, that it will be a play of his choosing, and Jack will audition for him.

The seniors are taken aback when he announces that the play will be Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One. Class president, football star (and Joan’s boyfriend) Craig is especially appalled at this suggestion, pointing out that the box office take from the play funds the senior prom. Mr. Sharf agrees to sweeten the deal by turning over the $250 bonus the director receives if the play is flop.

While that pacifies the worried seniors, Jack remains adamant that he wants no part of the play, telling Judy

“Go home; read the play. Then you’ll be able to figure it out.”  He shook his head. “This is terrible.”

Judy does so, and easily figures out that the role Mr. Sharf has in mind for Jack is Falstaff, Prince Henry’s fat and comic companion.

While Jack remains adamant that he wants no part of the production, Mr. Sharf proves himself a genius at publicity: having sworn the committee members to secrecy regarding the play, he gins up interest through a series of morning announcements featuring the latest rock and roll hits (that would be “Teen Angel” and “Puppy Love”, because OH RIGHT it’s 1960), slyly ordering underclassman to ignore the announcements because they are for SENIORS ONLY (guaranteeing that the lower grades will be talking about the show until opening night) and flattering the football team that the mystery show will involve swords so large that only the most muscle-bound could possibly lift them.

But things do not go smoothly on audition day. Groans go up among the assembled hopefuls when Mr. Sharf announces that they’re doing SHAKESPEARE. The senior girls send Judy to complain to him that there are too few roles for women in the play: genuinely taken aback, Mr. Sharf promises next year he’ll do Claire Booth Luce’s The Women; Judy points out that does no good for this year’s graduating seniors.

Mr. Sharf’s auditions are unconventional: he already has students in mind for each of the roles, and rather having them read for him, he interviews each one privately to see if they have the right stuff. Jack is a no-show.

Judy, meanwhile, has come around to Mr. Sharf’s point of view. After spending some time with Jack, she seen that he’s a gifted comic talent, as he “performs” a recent basketball game, gently mocking the determination of her enthusiastic-but-short younger brother to score a basket. When Judy speaks to Mr. Sharf about the dilemma, he confirms that he had Jack read aloud for a group of students and he easily slipped into performing all of the roles in a popular YA romance.

“In his heart of hearts he wants to be in it… The play will be the biggest hit this school has ever known,” Mr. Sharf replies firmly. “And Jack will be the hit of the play. He won’t be a laughingstock anymore.”

Judy and Mr. Sharf eventually take it upon themselves to visit Jack at home to try an convince him to take the role, and discover the secret he’s been keeping: he lives on the wrong side of the tracks with an overbearing mother, a failed Hollywood starlet who moved east after her husband’s death to try and sponge off of his theatrical relatives. While Jack is always impeccably dressed and groomed, his house is a wreck. While Mr. Sharf humors Mrs. Muldoon by looking through her scrapbooks, Judy convinces Jack to submit to Mr. Sharf’s interview-audition.

Mr. Sharf has also managed to win over most of the football team by having the coach serve as their instructor for stage combat; even the player who dismissed actors as “fags” has to admit that “He couldn’t, even as a joke, describe the football coach as a fag.”

FORESHADOWING.

After the casting announcement goes up there is one more minor bump as Margo is assigned a small comic role and refuses to participate (MORE FORESHADOWING), but Mr. Sharf takes it in stride, and starts on the enormous task of getting his student actors to get their heads around Shakespeare’s language.

After harrowing weeks of rehearsals, the cast finally has a breakthrough night, coming together as a unit and finally starting to understand what the words they’ve been saying actually mean. In a moment of backstage exuberance, Jack impulsively kisses Judy (cast as Mistress Quickly) and she’s surprised by how much she enjoys it. Also feeling warmed by the theatrical success, Mr. Sharf invites them both to join him for dinner and an evening of elevated literary discussion.

Jack and Judy enjoy themselves immensely, meeting their bachelor teacher’s bachelor roommate, Vic, who owns an antique store in a neighboring town. Just some bachelors bacheloring together, just ignore the metaphorical shotgun on the mantle that is Margo’s announcement that her mother has applied for the job as school librarian.

The play has a transformative effect on the social structure at school: as Mr. Sharf predicted, Jack is no longer a social outcast, although Judy still insists that she’s not attracted to him physically, declining a repeat of the kiss when he comes over to her place for not-date date.

Instead, she is surprised when Prince Hal himself, football star Craig stops by her house, announcing that Joan has broken up with him. Close friends in grade school, he’s treated Judy like she was invisible ever since an awkward spin-the-bottle incident at a party in the 7th grade.

Opening night and the subsequent weekend of performances of the actual play are almost anti-climactic; of course it is a huge success, and at the cast party Judy hosts in her basement rec room, the appreciative students present Mr. Sharf with a coveted antique volume of Shakespeare’s plays…

…and after the teachers leave, it is MAKE OUT time, as Judy pairs off with Craig and Jack with Joan.

The social changes remain in place after the end of the play’s run, and Jack and Judy find themselves as part of the in-crowd as they head towards graduation… although that seems to be based more on who they are dating than anything else. Jack continues with acting and is cast in a plum role in a community theater production of Guys and Dolls. Judy attends a performance with Craig, and he gets jealous when she insists upon going backstage to congratulate Jack; and although they had been planning on going to the prom together, Judy realizes this is the beginning of the end for them as a couple.

But the real news that Mr. Sharf has resigned from his position at the school. When Judy and Jack press him on the matter, he explains that he was given the choice to resign or be fired because Margo’s parents stirred up trouble about his references, which upon close examination revealed that he… spent some time in a psychiatric hospital.

I feel like Cohen sort of pulls her punch here. It is clear that Mr. Sharf and Vic are a couple and that is why he was asked to resign:

“When they find out you’ve been treated for a psychological ailment, they don’t think it’s safe to leave their children in your hands.”

Mr. Sharf insists that he’s satisfied in the position in a neighboring town that the principal referred him for and that he and Vic are happy to move closer to the antique shop. Jack and Judy realize they are powerless to influence these events.

And this is where we circle back to the present day of 1980, where Jack and Judy are still bickering about who betrayed whom, which apparently is who made out with a popular kid at the cast party first?

But Jack insists that they both betrayed Mr. Sharf, both too wrapped up in their new and precarious social status to do anything about his unjust resignation, and the residual guilt they feel. Judy suggests that he’s probably forgotten about it by now, but Jack still feels bad:

“But I haven’t forgotten. That man gave my life to me… And I gave him nothing in return.”

Anachronism Department:
In several places the social attitudes seem much more 1980 than 1960, which makes it seem strange that even in the present day Jack and Judy don’t acknowledge that Mr. Sharf is gay.

A number of students have mothers with careers, including Judy’s, whose works as a dietician; her obsession with health food and all things wheat germ definitely seems more like it’s circa 1980 than 1960.

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10 Responses to Fat Jack By Barbara Cohen

  1. Maia says:

    I don’t think that’s a pulled punch. I think you have to look between the lines and remember that homosexuality used to be classed as a mental illness, so it’s entirely possible that Mr. Sharf’s time in a mental hospital was for the treatment of his orientation. 😦

    • mondomolly says:

      Yeah, I thought of that, and even in 1980 homosexuality had only recently (and only partially) been declassified as a mental illness, but in the context of the book, in which Mr. Sharf and Vic and depicted in such a positive light and Jack and Judy admire them so much, and his firing/resignation and potential scandal is so clear, it sticks out that Cohen doesn’t actually say it.

      Thanks for commenting! This is definitely one worth picking up if you see it used!

  2. msyingling says:

    Wow. This sounds like… a lot of stuff thrown in together. There was something in the 80s that loved to look back to the 50s, so that’s not a surprise. Thanks for uncovering this gem.

  3. C Baker says:

    Speaking as somebody who was chronically bullied as a child, straight through school, I gotta say my experience is that you’re unlikely to be bullied as a transfer student in the last year at a particular school. They already have their targets picked out, they don’t need a new one. Unless there’s something else going on, but it’d have to be *really* something – I just don’t think “being the fattest fat kid ever” is enough.

    • mondomolly says:

      It really struck me that the mean-girl characters came off as really immature for being high school seniors, and it was the one part of the book I couldn’t quite buy. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hi! Welcome back! I recommended your site to someone who Just Couldn’t Think of the Book He Remembered a Scene From. It might not even have been a YA book from the 1939-1989 era–but it could be. Thank you again for your site!

    • mondomolly says:

      Thanks for the recommend! I am working frantically to catch up on all of the requests, but I do read every one of them and readers have been so helpful in finding “lost” titles, I hope we can help out your friend!

  5. Funbud says:

    The elements of the plot certainly have potential, though it sounds like a bit of a mash-up with a flat ending. As I read your synopsis, I had to keep reminding myself that the bulk of the plot was set in 1960; those anachronisms you pointed out don’t help. Interesting book, though. Thank you!

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