Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Arnold Murphy’s Bologna Dare

There is no phrase that jolts my skeptical meter into the red faster than "laugh-out-loud funny." When a movie is described this way its almost guaranteed not to make me laugh, but it's worse when this line is used in books because it's so rare that I laugh out loud even when something is truly funny.  For something to be funny enough that I laugh out loud while reading it I have to be caught off guard, I have to not see the joke coming.

I actually found myself laughing out loud more than a couple times while reading Beat the Band, Don Calame's follow-up to last year's Swim the Fly.

As part of a semester-long project in Health class, Cooper is paired up with the notorious "Hot Dog" Helen which instantly lowers his cool cred at school. Worse, their topic is on contraceptives and STDs.  Coop's brilliant solution: enter the school's Battle of the Bands competition so he can rock his way back to cool and bury his lowered social standing. Problem: he hasn't told his buddies he's entered them into the competition, never mind that none of them can play an instrument.

I wandered into Beat the Band cautiously; I didn't really like Swim the Fly, and I was worried when the boys started talking about their goal of "rounding the bases" with a girl. I just didn't want to read a story about boys on an empty conquest, and I really didn't want a story that was a typical "girls are people with feelings, too" moral clinging to the bottom of it's shoes. Fairly quickly though the story shifts to the semester project, and the pairings among students, and this urgency Cooper has to get Helen and her undeserved reputation from sticking to him, and things looked up.

True to "boy" thinking, Cooper's idea is pure inanity, and there's no way its going to go the way he imagines.  These self-made scenarios can be tricky territory for an author if they don't really grok the delusions boys will invent to follow-through on their schemes. And for the humor to work there has to be something more than uncomfortable scenarios, there has to be a certain ratcheting-up of the situations, things have to go one (logical, yet unexpected) step beyond.

The moment I gave in and went along for the rest of the ride comes in a scene involving Cooper, his dad, a pair of beer bottles, and some condoms.  As if scenes between fathers and sons cannot already be awkward without condoms this one soldiers on for a few uncomfortable pages before a left-field interruption that I probably should have seen coming, but didn't, and so I proceeded to laugh.  Out loud. And long enough that I had to take a moment before continuing forward.

Calame gets it.  He knows that boys will get themselves worked up over stupid things, will invent elaborate solutions to problems they invented, and will, in due course, come to see what's below the surface in their social worlds. They'll enter Battle of the Band contests and recruit the class pariah as their singer and it won't even matter whether they've won or not in the end.  Screenwriter Calame knows how to end a teen comedy on a happy note and, as cheesy as that can be, somehow it seems alright after everything else that's happened.

Oh, and for those wondering, the title of this post is the name of Cooper's band.  Despite of the fact it would be deceptive, I almost wish that were the title of the book.

Beat the Band
by Don Calame
Candlewick Press 2010


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