Debut novelist Ehrhorn works impressive CPR on a trope that has been done to death: the Sturm und Drang of surviving high school.
In 1960s-era Chicago, Talbot High School senior Kelly Elliott is living not the dream, but the nightmare. His acne is all but terminal; he has never had a date; he has just wised off to Joe Swedarsky, the class bully—and that’s just the start of his torments. His single mother, left by his feckless father years ago, has a sometime lover who is a cheater and dangerously abusive. His high school teachers are the typical mixed and sometimes-sadistic bag. There are the usual high school embarrassments, as when Kelly lets loose the fart heard ’round the gym right in front of Laura LeDuc, head cheerleader who seems so sweet but—he finally learns—is a player, a manipulator. He does find love, after a fashion, with Linda Martinsen, who is worthy of it. His real connection, however, is with Mary Harker (aka Ginny Dare), a stripper who understands him, anchors him, comforts him. These lessons are painful but necessary. Senior year does come to a merciful end, finding a newly reflective Kelly, a Kelly who has found a real measure of understanding and acceptance of hard truths. Ehrhorn writes well. One finds sentences like, “The series of life’s dominoes were continuing their cascade” to describe Kelly’s hapless, up-and-down life. The chapters are almost self-contained episodes, each contributing to Kelly’s education. An interesting point is that it is the women—Kelly’s mom, Linda Martinsen, and especially Mary Harker—who are his most valuable teachers, while the males—Swedarsky, Kelly’s long-gone father, the abusive Dan Phillips, and others—are the anti role models. The most poignant passages are those between Kelly and Mary Harker. The stripper with a heart of gold is a tired and strained cliché, but Ehrhorn pulls it off beautifully and tenderly. What finally happens to Mary is a godawful kick in the gut but absolutely faithful to the story.
Rings true without being clichéd, a neat trick.