What A Strange Trip

It seems like all I’ve been doing lately is reading, but that’s really not the case.

Okay, it is.

But really, is there anything wrong with that?!?!

Anyway…

While I was at home (for all of 36 hours), I found a few small books at the back of one of my shelves in my bedroom. One of the books was a dirty old paperback published in 1980, called The Quartzsite Trip by William Hogan. Once I read the back of it, I knew that I had to read it. I wasn’t disappointed or tickled, but it did raise my eyebrows a few times.

It’s basically Battle Royale meets Can’t Hardly Wait. Here’s the premise: It’s 1962 in Los Angeles. P.J. Cooper, a radically egotistical megalomaniac of a high school English teacher invites 36 of his students on a five-day trip each year to the wilderness of Quartzsite, Arizona. Nobody knows exactly what happens on those annual trips, but pretty much everyone suspects the same things. As did I, at the beginning of the book. I wasn’t exactly wrong, but I wasn’t exactly right either.

This was one of those books that was kinda so-bad-it-was-good, but not too bad. This was one of those books I couldn’t put down, even though I wanted to, but for some reason I didn’t. This was one of those books that was a lot racier than it came off initially. This was one of those books with repetitive sentence structures and paragraphs that go on and on and on.

Without spoiling too much of what happens, I’ll tell you this: the book is broken up into two parts. In Part One, we meet most of the characters (both those invited on the trip and those not invited) and get a lot of weird descriptive passages about penises and sanitary napkins. They fit all the high school stereotypes: an athlete, a nerd, an innocent girl, a slutty girl, and so on. Most of them are pretty cookie-cutter and interchangeable. They’re also all white, even though I found this suspect, it was 1962, and there was a line about how few Hispanic and African-American students at the school, despite being located in Los Angeles. Of course, with 36 students, we can’t get to know all of them, but we at least learn all their names in a list at the end of this part, and they’re all whiter than white bread. it’s like the author just picked the most generic first and last names out there and mashed them together. Among the boys, there are two Sams, and among the girls, there’s a Mary, a Mary Ann, and a Mary Beth, although the first Mary, aka Mary Allbright (the characters are usually referred to by their first and last names, as if we didn’t remember who they were one page later) is the only one of them whose character arc we follow. Other characters we will follow include Ann Hosack and Margaret Ball, among the girls, and among the boys, Phil Baker, Paul Darcy, “Stretch” Latham, Sid Page, Rod Barker, and the only somewhat interestingly named character, Deeter Moss. We never learn, however, whether Deeter is a nickname or just a misspelling of the actual name Dieter.

But enough about Part One. The trip itself happens in Part Two. Going along with the theme of the book, I won’t tell you what happens, but stuff does happen. It’s fairly predictable and mostly tame, but very graphic, especially for a novel written in the 1980s about kids in the 1960s. It is a relief, however, that the author shows the kids actually doing things that are against the grain of the 1960s stereotypes, even though I could do with fewer descriptions of penises (seriously, we don’t learn much about some of the guys other than about their penises) and the references to sanitary pads and the “new” Tampax.

The ending is probably the worst part; it befits the story but serves no real purpose, and the epilogue and afterward are just complete throwaways.

My biggest criticisms of the book are that it starts some plot lines which it doesn’t resolve, and leaves hints to things that don’t happen, or what happens is the exact opposite of what the hint says. I mean, the author repeats several paragraphs, but can’t manage to finish half of what he started. It almost reads like the first draft of someone’s college writing assignment, but that’s what makes it endearing.

Finally, I wondered what would happen if someone managed to rediscover the book and give it a reboot, either in book or movie form. I don’t think it would work set in modern times, at least not exactly how it plays out; it would be interesting to see how a bunch of 21st century teens would go about 5 days camping out in the Arizona desert, but they’d probably spend most of the time whining and complaining about not having their cell phones, and then once they’re through withdrawal, go crazy until they get herded back on the bus, and not the free-spirit-Boy-Scout-resourceful-fun-discovering-life crazy, but legitimate let’s-kill-ourselves-or-each-other crazy.

Overall, if you’re interested in a weird nostalgia trip to the 1960s a la Catcher in the Rye, here’s a book for you. If not, skip it.

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