So the caveats to this review are that I know Ben; he’s decamped from his town in the gold rush foothills of California here to the City of Angels, where he’s become one of the LAYAs -- that group of us who write YA from our Pacific Rim perches, and occasionally gather at bookfair booths or local bars, to bemoan the long strange transition of Publishing into Something Else, in a century full of long strange transitions.
I also know the area -- the hometown -- he writes about, in disguised fashion, in his freshman effort, “Sophomore Undercover.” I didn’t know, exactly, which town, until he copped to it; I suspected some place a little more due west, though I had the general “central California” part mostly figured out.
Which means, before I ever read the book, I already had opinions formed about Ben (funny guy, quick with an observation, and good company in a green room), and the neck of the woods (hills?) where the book is set.
Which also means, this is scarcely an unbiased review -- but then, really, are they ever?
“Sophomore Undercover” tells the tale of Dixie Nguyen, the 15 year-old adopted Vietnamese son of a local cop and his family, who, in the Roman-a-clef town of “Stilton,” California, comes across what he thinks is a meth/crank -pushing scheme among the hated school jocks, who are responsible for the routinely recurring humiliation Dixie endures.
Dixie, brandishing tips from a handbook written by Fresno State’s most renowned journalism prof, goes on the investigative trail in search of vindication, only to realize that everyone thinks he’s the one with the drug problem.
And somehow, he just can’t stammer his way out of the situation.
Along the way he encounters more sadistic jocks, overly touchy-feely teachers, sexy yet off-putting (yet sexy cause they’re off-putting) goth girls, and more. There’s even a pretty hilarious scene at a motorcycle bar.
In fact, there are hilarious scenes throughout. The book gets by on its constant stream of acidic observations about smalltown high school life, and as the author of “high ‘tween/early YA” books myself, I also enjoyed the fairly constant barrage of swearing -- perhaps it got me wondering if I’ve been too mild, all along?
The book has many of the same pleasures as “Porky’s,” and as long as we’re referencing teen films, there’s a finale that even calls up “Carrie” in some ways (but, you know, funnier) - -though since I have a few years on Ben, that’s more a reference from my adolescence than his.
In my work, I’ve been accused of overly-dense plotting. Indeed, one of the early rejections for the “Danger Boy” series was that the story machinations were “overwhelming.” Ben may be the opposite, in that there’s really only the merest suggestion of a plot to string along the observations and witticisms, though book is definitely full-up with incidents.
When he gets to his next yarn- no confirmation yet on whether than will in fact be another Dixie misadventure -- I’d love to see more of the workaday world of “Stilton” (or wherever) to balance out the incredibly strong “inner monologue” of the protagonist.
A paperback release, meanwhile, is promised for next spring. But that’s a whole school year away. One hopes Dixie can hang on that long.