Sunday, July 29, 2007

Book: I Love You, Beth Cooper, by Larry Doyle (2007)

Doyle is the veteran Simpsons scribe who also has the sorely underrated Looney Tunes: Back in Action to his credit. (You can read that script and several others at his website.) His first comic novel triggered high school flashbacks so intense that my voice changed.

Denis Cooverman, star debater and valedictorian, blurts out the title line in his graduation speech. What he doesn’t expect is that Beth Cooper, head cheerleader and secret hellion, will find his professions of love cute. What he doesn’t know is that Beth has a new boyfriend, Kevin, who is massive, on leave from the Army, and lacking a sense of humor. As Denis, Beth and their friends spend a long graduation night shuttling from parties to make-out spots trying to avoid Kevin, Denis finds out the adolescent social whirl he’s long fantasized about isn’t quite as he imagined it.

It’s a funny book, with bright turns of phrase throughout. It’s also a rich one, with Denis and particularly Beth bursting out of the Breakfast Club pigeonholes into which high school has forced them in some surprising ways. By the end the book achieves a grace, even a wisdom, that caught me off-guard.

Seldom have I identified with a character as strongly as I did with Rich Munsch, Denis’s best (and only) bud. Rich is completely obsessed with movies and views every mortifying event as grist for the film someone must be making of his life. Rich, in other words, is the adolescent me, only with more flair. By which I mean any flair.

Reading the book has me thinking about high school and my graduation night in particular, when I had my own Denis Cooverman moment. For the full four years I attended Dunedin High School in Dunedin, Florida – go, Falcons! – I harbored an intense crush on a girl named Ellen.* I don’t know why. I knew nothing about her. I doubt we said more than fifty words to each other, mainly because I was tongue-tied in her presence. She sat next to me in several classes, and occasionally when the teacher made a joke that fell flat she’d turn to me and roll her eyes. At such moments I would come perilously close to passing out.

After the graduation ceremony we all filed back into the high school one final time. Emotions were running high; people were already exchanging goodbyes. And a single thought took possession of me: I have to mark this moment. I stalked the halls until I found Ellen, standing with a group of her friends. She smiled at me. I seized my chance.

“Congratulations,” I said, and kissed her. And I mean a full Adrien-Brody-on-Halle-Berry special, with a dip and everything. I may have banged her head into a locker. The whole thing’s kind of a blur. I am not usually given to acts of unprovoked affection.

When the kiss ended, I said, “I’m sorry, but I’ve wanted to do that for four years.”

Ellen laughed. “I’m glad you did it, then.”

I never saw her again. I’m sure she doesn’t even remember the incident. But that night alone almost made high school bearable. It was a lesson I’d learned from all the movies I’d been watching. If you get the ending right, all the disappointment that came before doesn’t matter.

* - Name changed to protect the innocent