Despite the show at the center of its story, Spinning Out is thankfully far removed from the peppy nonsense of the High School Musical franchise. Rather, in David Stahler Jr.’s novel, available this month from Chronicle Books, a mounting of Man of La Mancha becomes the stage on which the characters tackle serious problems and begin to grow up.
Frenchy, our narrator, slightly disaffected occasional stoner and outsider, is beginning his senior year when his best friend Stewart, the more outgoing of the pair, convinces him to audition for the school’s musical, Man of La Mancha. Always his friend’s sidekick, Frenchy is inevitably cast as Sancha Panza to Stewart’s Don Quixote. Wary of the adventure from the start, Frenchy grows concerned as Stewart connects with Quixote on an unusual level. More than just acting, Stewart starts constantly calling him Sancho, shows up to school dressed as Quixote, and begins alluding to a quest of his own.
La Mancha presents the story of Quixote from Cervantes’ point of view, casting the questing knight-errant as an admirable dreamer and noble sole. But watching Stewart’s progression down this path through Frenchy’s eyes, we see its overwhelmingly troubling side, too. Like Sancho, Frenchy remains steadfastly by his friend’s side, even while growing increasingly concerned by behavior he cannot explain and bearing the brunt of its ramifications. He can sympathize, but each step becomes a demonstration of his frustrating inability to offer any help. While Quixote’s quixotic, Sancho is dragged into an impossible nightmare.
On a broader level, Stahler’s take on Don Quixote also reflects the challenges of growing up in high school. As friends change, quickly, often without explanation or warning, one is left trying to find new footing. As he copes with Stewart’s transformation, Frenchy finds insight into his own difficulties and even stumbles into a romance. To Stahler’s credit, the blossoming relationship is played off with subtlety, not falling into the be-all-end-all clichés that often make high school love stories seem ridiculous. But Stewart and Frenchy’s friendship is the core the story and its strength is the force that drives their eventual growth. Reconfiguring Don Quixote, Stahler finds inspiration not from the dreamer, but from the loyal friend, willing to push and bend himself for another’s sake, admirable in his own right.