The story is centered around five teenagers who plot to kidnap but accidentally kill their English teacher, Mr. Griffin. No real spoiler, it’s the title. The kids attempt to cover their crime throughout the novel, suffering mental and spiritual breakdowns as each of them shows a bit of character.
The actual location of this novel is forgettable at best, helping to boost the tone that this could happen anywhere yet touches of location keep the reader wondering where this is taking place, much like an internet story without a dateline. To keep the novel current, the edition under review has been revised to include such items as cell phones, the Internet and other technology that were not present in 1978. The update damages the novel, almost forcing the questions of “why don’t they just look it up/call their cell?” that would have been evident yet forgiven to modern audiences. Modern audiences are aware, subconsciously or not, that modern conveniences update at a rapid pace and do not expect them in literature/film. This would be like giving the Lone Ranger a car, yet having Tonto still ride a horse. The inclusion is inconsistent and painful to read.
One can forgive the characters their technological follies as they are both bland and compelling, a contradiction that one can blame more on the author than the characters. We are told more about them than we actually see, making this novel a dated edition of the teen genre rather than the more nuanced characters that we see in modern teen fiction (prices and participation may vary). Example: the main villain is said to be a master manipulator, yet the only time we see him really manipulate someone he seems less reasonable and more demanding, an effect of peer pressure rather than his own charisma. The characters are reacting to him from their own past experiences, not from what the reader has seen. If this character was selling drugs, kids from the 80s would be yelling “Just Say No” at him and running away.
The rest of the cast reads the same way, walking through situations much in the same way a character in an after school special soap opera would. To their credit, they all have motives that shift and grow as the novel moves, but have no room to breathe within the narrative. The best I can say is the characters feel real in the way reality television feels real, bland people forced into a narrative that could be compelling if the editor finds just the right moments.
The story structure follows the same frustrating pacing as the characters. Skipping around from person to person, we find the characters forced to react to coincidence and circumstance. Our characters do something, something happens between chapters, our characters react. At times, we get the jarring narrative of someone on the periphery, like the character’s parents, that seems almost filler yet is included to provide character information that should be given by the character’s actions. Running rampant throughout the narrative are large chunks of exposition to scenes that the reader has just read. I almost want to believe this novel was serialized month to month in “Seventeen” magazine by the constant need to update the reader. I think this may be a trend in teen fiction to keep the younger reader present in the narrative, but other writers seem to hide this practice better than this book does.
Overall, this book is more of a character study than a narrative. What would Average Joe Teenager Kid do if he accidentally killed somebody? If this book had been written today, the pitch for it would be “What if the Breakfast Club killed Principal Vernon?” The same type of stereotypes exist (athlete, brain, basket case, princess, criminal) yet are made more real through their reactions to each incident that arises. The problem with the book comes when the reader is told that action rather than having the characters, I dunno, act it out.
Why was it banned?
The main characters kill their teacher. Sure, they do not mean to, but even thinking about kidnapping your teacher is frowned upon in today’s school climate. The usual argument of fighting authority could be applied, as kidnapping/killing your teacher is a rather anti-schoolin message. The kids also drink beer and do drugs, so the PG rating is well earned in that regard.