Thursday, March 05, 2009

Boys to Men: 13 by Jason Robert Brown and Dan Elish

And just like that I became one of those kids you see on those after-school specials: a guy who sees his dad once a week for dinner and every other weekend. Except I wasn't on TV.

Twelve-year-old Evan Goldman's worries go from the usual end-of-elementary-school type--surviving junior high and maybe being able to kiss both of Nina Handelman's lips at the same time--to high anxiety at warp speed when his father confesses that he has met the love of his life (a stewardess named Angelina). Suddenly, his dad is out of his life and his mom decides to leave New York behind and move in with her old college friend in Appleton, Indiana.

Once there, the main thing on his mother's mind is arranging for Evan's bar mitzvah, not an easy job, since the only preparation available involves an internet rabbi and a party in the basement of the local Methodist Church. In a town where no kid has ever heard of a bar mitzvah, Evan wonders who will even attend the event, assuming he ever learns his halftorah and writes his speech about becoming a man.

In the waning days of the Indiana summer, Evan does find one friend, a nerdish girl named Patrice who reads long novels and invites him over to watch vintage movies. Used to having a circle of semi-popular guy friends, though, Evan is wary of becoming associated with Patrice, not to mention her friend Archie, a weird but scrappy crippled kid whose only goal in life is a date with Kendra, the gorgeous cheerleader-to be for the Dan Quayle Jr. High Fighting Quails football team. But when Evan is amazingly befriended by the golden boy of the rising seventh grade, Brett Connelly, QB to his fans and star of the team, Evan works hard at making the grade with QB's circle. Trouble is, of course, being a social success at Quayle Junior means dropping Patrice and playing the social game with the popular lunch crowd.

Things come to a head when, as a rite of initiation to the popular crowd, Evan is required to persuade his mom, using the old "Jewish guilt" ploy, to chaperone the gang into an R-rated slasher movie at which Brett plans to kiss Kendra:

"So when Friday night comes, instead of hanging out with the rest of the gang and going to the coolest movie of the year, I'll stay here with you and Pam." I pause. "And practice my haftorah," Evan says plaintively.

The guilt trip trap works, but Evan's role in the kiss plot--holding down one of the seats next to Kendra--runs into trouble when Archie appears and takes his seat and puts some totally lame moves on her. Somehow Evan gets blamed for the fiasco both by Brett and his friends and by Archie and Patrice and finds himself eating solo in the cafeteria. Needless to say, the ensuing social shunning reinforces Evan's fears that his bar mitzvah will be a very scantily attended event indeed.

Brown and Elish are talented comedy writers, and 13: A Novel, as an adaptation of their popular Broadway musical, also titled 13, manages to hit all the painful nerves of the middle school social situation adeptly and humorously. One hilarious fugue involves Evan's trip back to New York for his old buddy Aaron's bar mitzvah, where he is stalked by an former classmate (a stereotypically bucktoothed but buxom lass) who is determined to kiss him while he himself is pursuing the elusive Nina Handelman amongst the mini-quiches and lobster hors d'oeuvres, hoping for a full double liplock with her at last.

The novelization mostly manages to avoid lapsing into cliched "Disney" sappiness, with the notable exceptions of the big football game scene and Evan's "Now I am a Man," speech in the final bar mitzvah chapter. At times Evan seems a bit naive for his years, but at others he seems too mature for the tweener framework in which he is placed. (Note: Some readers could be occasionally offended by the guy language, especially the focus on the full-tongued kiss which Evan and Brett obsess about incessantly.) Still, after all, it's a comedy based on a Broadway musical, in which we might expect the characters to be both a tad cliched and a bit over the top.

Speaking of the musical, the full-cast soundtrack of 13 (Original Broadway Cast Recording) is now available for fans of the Broadway production. Younger fans of High School Musical and its sequels will find this book and the soundtrack of this middle school setting of teen love and angst just to their taste.

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  • Yes it is a good book

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:44 PM  

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