That's the accurate subtitle of Marc Acito's comic novel How I Paid for College, which I zipped through over the past few days.
Acito lives in Portland and I have met him a few times, when he's emceed Portland Center Stage's "Commission Commission!" benefit. He's just as hilarious on the fly as he is in the pages of this novel. How I Paid for College also won the Oregon Book Award as "Best Novel" in 2005, which is pretty cool, especially when you consider that usually they give this prize to the kind of "typical literary fiction that is made to win prizes": thick and serious and weighty, with bonus points if it takes place in some dull little town in rural Oregon. For them to give it to a fast and funny novel about a teenager in the New Jersey suburbs is a welcome change.
How I Paid for College takes place in 1983 and is narrated by Edward Zanni, a 17-year-old aspiring singer/dancer/actor. (Vocab lesson of the day: zanni is the Italian word for "the crazy servant characters in a commedia dell'arte play" and it is where our English word zany comes from.) Edward is convinced that he'll never be happy unless he goes to Juilliard, but his father refuses to pay for Edward to do anything except major in business. So Edward and his friends team up to embezzle, blackmail, defraud, and generally steal the tuition money any way they can. As a narrator, Edward provides laughs when you realize how his inflated perception of himself differs from the way he appears to others, but he also makes some very witty observations. I fell in love with the book on page 10, when Edward writes "I duck in through a side door that only the Play People know about. (Play People. Like we're not real. We're the realest people in this preppy prison.)" Every high-school theater nerd has felt the same way.
The style of the novel is like an '80s teen movie with a twist. For instance, as befits a teen hero, Edward has a girlfriend, Kelly, who is both sweet and gorgeous. But Kelly likes sex more than the average girl-next-door heroine does, and furthermore, Edward isn't sure he wants a hot girlfriend after all--maybe he wants a hot boyfriend instead. Someone like Doug, the sensitive and totally-heterosexual jock who has started to do theatre. Meanwhile, the nerd (Nathan Nudelman--great name) takes almost sadistic glee in coming up with crazy illegal schemes, and the hot foreign student (Ziba) is Persian, an ethnicity underrepresented in teen movies.
One of my favorite characters is Paula, Edward's best friend, who is starting her first year at Juilliard. Big-bosomed, big-hearted, and wildly self-dramatizing, Paula is the kind of girl who can be found in every drama club and she perks up the book whenever she appears.
These kids feel the typical teen angst over their love lives and their futures, but one great and refreshing thing is how they never feel ashamed or guilty about having sex, or about breaking the law. And they do a lot of both. So much so that although the movie rights have been sold, I don't know how this can be made into a film that won't offend half of America, unless they seriously change the narrative. Though Edward's sexual confusion is handled in what seems to me a sensitive and realistic (if humorous) manner, you can't deny that he is hungry for experience with both girls and guys, and likes it that way. And then, there's all the illegal activity: funny and entertaining as this novel is, it makes you root for a teenager to pull off increasingly complex federal crimes!
Acito overuses a few of his running gags, but also includes some very funny ones (Edward gets mistaken for a waiter whenever he goes to a restaurant, but he's still convinced that he's destined to be a Broadway star). There are also lots of jokes and references that are bound to appeal to the theatre crowd. The storyline, which at first seems as easygoing and ambling as Edward himself, soon becomes much tighter: characters and locations that were introduced early on will pop up again with surprising results. Even the sex scenes are usually necessary to the narrative, redefining character relationships and not just livening up a dull chapter with some titillation. Because there's hardly a dull moment in How I Paid for College--and I'll be excited to read the sequel, Attack of the Theater People, when it comes out in 2008!
Visit Marc Acito's official website for more information.
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