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In this older novel about a troubled eighth grader, Hughes proves as successful with serious problems as he was in his funnier (but never frivolous) stories Nutty for President and Honestly, Myron. Not long after his father's death, Mark and his mother have moved to a smaller, shabby house in a new neighborhood. In his new junior high school Mark does no work and makes no friends. At home he is surly and distant with his mother. His only interest is in playing Space Invaders at the arcade. When an old man from down the street asks Mark's help in rebuilding his model train set, Mark has ""no intention of"" accepting. ""Who needed to hang around with some old guy like that? The man had to be eighty years old."" And the old guy's plan to tear down his elaborate setup and rebuild everything by hand strikes Mark as just plain stupid. But old Willard will pay a dollar an hour, and so Mark goes, for Space Invader funds. He scorns Willard's reminiscences about working on the railroad with now-dead Gurney and McGill and their ongoing corny patter, but soon he is playing along, taking the role of McGill to Willard's Gurney, spending time at school thinking up new lines for McGill, returning to Willard's even after the dollar-an-hour agreement is discontinued. ""The nice thing about it was when Mark was McGill, he didn't have to answer for Mark. Actually, Mark never really came to care all that much about the trains and the layout, but he liked the preoccupation they provided. He was having more trouble at night, now""--haunted by words he doesn't want to remember, words that even Space Invaders can no longer drown out. (Words that readers don't hear until the end.) When Willard starts prodding him about his self-destructive behavior at school and home, Mark tries to hide behind McGill and then just stays away. Both he and Willard, whom we learn is dying of cancer, get worse, and both end up in hospital--Mark in a psychiatric unit after freaking out on the school bus--before Mark finally calls in Willard to confess the words, his own, that he believes drove his hated father to suicide. Hughes doesn't force any of these developments. Readers watch Mark's behavior with concern, and recognize the impulses that lead him, for example, to shut out his worried mother though he knows he's being unfair. Willard is a straight-thinking and straight-talking individual, and the guarded relationship between the two is touching but never sentimental or predictable.

Pub Date: Sept. 10th, 1982
Publisher: Atheneum