Life is full of disagreeable surprises, one of the most disagreeable of which is called high school. It is a three-year rite of initiation that begins in confusion and ends in terror -- or is it the other way around? -- and that offers scarcely a moment of comic relief.
There's no relief for the kids, that is, as they stagger through the tortures of high school. But once one has gotten some distance on it -- say, 25 years -- it's suddenly possible to see high school in a less alarming light. What at the time was sheer torture -- the zits, the hickeys, the wet dreams, the braces, the blind dates and above all the pervasive awkwardness -- can produce an odd nostalgia a quarter-century later.
It's interesting, and revealing, that we tend to recall high school more as a social than an academic experience. By unfortunate coincidence, the age at which we are expected to assimilate sines and cosines, sonnets and synecdoches, is also the age at which we are expected to absorb and practice the rituals of courtship, competition and social organization. Throw into the pot the most disruptive ingredient of all -- the churning sluiceway of adolescent sexuality -- and it's hardly surprising that the academic side of things gets short shrift.
Certainly it does in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," Cameron Crowe's account of a year at a California high school. This is the second "inside" look at high-school life to be published this year; it is also decidedly the second-best.
In "High School," published in the spring by Viking, David Owen managed to convey the entire high-school experience: not merely the bathos and pathos of late adolescence, but also the nature of life inside the classroom. Disguising himself as a transfer student (he was then 24), Owen enrolled in a high school somewhere outside New York. He kept his project a tight secret, and watched his schoolmates at work and play. His book is a clinical but affectionate report on their social lives, and an alarming bulletin about the decline of American secondary education.
Cameron Crowe, by contrast, exhibits almost no interest in the classroom save as a place where pranks are played. He sees Ridgemont High, which is in Redondo Beach, primarily as a spot where kids assemble to set their social and sexual energies in motion. That the school is supposedly a place of academic instruction seems not to matter to him -- though, to give him the benefit of the doubt, the possibility certainly exists that little or nothing of value is actually taught there.
Unlike Owen, Crowe (who was 22 at the time) did not disguise his journalistic purposes, at least from the school's administration. He told the principal that he "wanted to attend classes at Ridgemont High and remain an inconspicuous presence for the full length of the school year," his object being "to write a book about real, contemporary life in high school." He did not tell his schoolmates what he was up to until the year was over; then he "interviewed the main characters extensively, corroborating stories and notes."
What he has written, the dust jacket and title page say, is "A True Story." Perhaps so. But how much of its "truth" one is willing to accept depends on how much authority one is willing to grant the artifices of the "new" journalism, of which Crowe is a faithful acolyte.
Crowe has changed the names of his schoolmates, as Owen also did; but unlike Owen, he has granted himself the new-journalistic license to speak from the insides of their heads. When he does so, he does not pause to cite the source of his information; presumably we are to believe that it is his interviews, but often it sounds like his imagination.
The problem is simply that "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" is too predictable and too melodramatic to ring true. At his northeastern high school, David Owen found mostly boredom, clock-watching and sexual timidity; Crowe finds an updated remake of "The Blackboard Jungle," complete with torrid romance, an abortion, a suicide and a climactic binge at (!) Disneyland. Perhaps all of this is factual; perhaps the differences between the two books reflect nothing more than the differences between Redondo Beach and, oh, Hackensack. But everything in Crowe's scenario falls so neatly into place that the reader constantly senses the author's behind-the-scenes manipulations.
To the extent that the book has a point, above and beyond all its breathless accounts of adolescent yearnings and fumblings, it is this, as set forth in Crowe's crypto-Taleseian prose:
"Brad Hamilton sat there, listening, and in the back of his mind he realized what was bothering him about College Orientation Week. It was one long parade of adults, and the thrust of all their presentations was, Yeah, we know high school's one big party, but now it's time to get serious. Didn't they understand how tough it was to work, to go to school, deal with teachers, and then with assistant managers, with parents, and with customers, and then with the lunch-court crowd, too? Hey, he felt like saying, who's having fun? Life isn't like 'Happy Days.' "
True enough, and a point well worth making. High school is very little fun for anyone -- and that goes for the football captains and the head cheerleaders, just as for all the wimps, wombats, weirdos and wussys. But the point is made with far more depth and sensitivity by David Owen than by Cameron Crowe, whose keyhole-peeping depictions of his subjects' sexual activities manage to exploit them even as they ooze sympathy and understanding. "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" is a silly and unnecessary book.