This novel gave me a nightmare about being forced to ride through the Napa hills in the lap of a closeted gay teenage boy driving a motorcycle as his mass of shiny black curls flowed in the breeze. He wouldn’t let me off the motorcycle. I wish I were kidding.
How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship, and Musical Theater by Marc Acito, 276 pages
My overall impression of this novel is that it was both aimless and horrifying. There is not a scruple to be found amongst the main characters of this cynical, oversexed ode to theater life in 1983 suburban New Jersey.
Edward Zanni is a large Italian-American boy with an even larger singing voice, about to enter his last year of high school before moving on to Juilliard to pursue his musical theater dreams. His ample-in-every-way pal Paula precedes him and he is left to cobble together a social life from the remaining Musical Theater rabble. He scrounges up: his ex-cheerleader girlfriend Kelly (who he routinely dry humps in front of students and faculty alike), jock-turned-actor Doug whom he would also like to hump, ever-present tagalong Natie “Cheesehead” Nudelman, and terminally glamorous Persian transfer student Ziba. This cast of clowns makes a real mess of the book as they clumsily try to have sex with one another in varying configurations, regularly defile a ceramic buddha (which serves as a motif for the chapter headings), and perform various theater-related tasks in between. Edward’s arts-oriented mother is MIA, having split to find herself years earlier and recently gone off the radar in South America, leaving him to contend with a business-focused father and drug-addled sister.
When Edward’s father abruptly remarries, to a gold-digging German photographer, Edward finds himself edged out of his home and sans one financier for his college education. Luckily his friendship with Natie the Cheesehead has really taken off, because it turns out that Natie is a devious mastermind who develops an evolving strategy to raise Edward’s tuition money via a mix of good old-fashioned hard work (to which Edward is ill-suited, of course) and felonious white-collar crime. The whole gang gets dragged into the hijinks, including Paula up at Juilliard, and things get crazier and crazier right up to the bizarre ending.
The story is not exactly bad, I did finish the whole thing after all, but it is definitely a lot of book. The writing is good but many of the things that are supposed to come off as funny just seem cruel, gross, or (worst of all) stupid. Edward is pretty hard to like despite his struggles with his sexuality, abandonment, self-worth, and even impotence. If he doesn’t want to have sex with a peer, he looks down on them. If he does want to have sex with a peer, they are nothing but a an empty vessel for the fulfillment of his carnal desires. For all his nastiness he is rather cowardly. I could see this novel appealing to a certain kind of person who feels very outside: someone with a big personality, struggling with non-hetero-normative sexuality, who really loves the theater and is very self-absorbed. When Edward wasn’t ignoring his father he was making close-minded cracks at his expense, so I found his entitlement issues in regard to college tuition a little hard to take.
The strongest part of the novel is probably the fact that Edward grows up a lot by the end of it. He is able to see the friends he has cast into various stereotypes as real people put on Earth to do something other than fill the stage of his life. He finally gets to know Kelly as a person with personality and talent rather than a stock “pretty girl” who fills out a pair of terrycloth shorts really well. The much-maligned Natie seems destined for things much greater (and perhaps more terrible) than any of the others. So it goes as well for Ziba, Doug, and to a lesser extent Paula.
This is not a bad book but it’s graphically sexual, holds nothing sacred, and is at times just plain mean. I usually read YA to avoid these kinds of attitudes. The fact that Chuck Palahniuk recommended the author for publication says a lot about the sensibility of this novel, but I can’t agree with the claim that Acito is a “gay Dave Barry”.