So, hey, I wrote a book.
This will not come as a surprise to those of you who got the URL of this site off the book jacket.
If that sounds like you — that is, if you finished the book, saw the mention of the web site, and decided to swing by for a looksee — this page isn't going to tell you anything you don't already know. But if you feel like telling me what you thought of the book, I'd love to hear from you — please drop me a line and share your thoughts. I not only read but try to answer all my mail, so you won't be shouting into a void.
But if this is the first you've heard of this whole book thingy and would like to know more, read on.
Allen Mockery is a sophomore at Ilium High School in Orange County, California. He does well in his classes, works on the school paper, does a little peer counseling in the afternoons... oh, and before the school year is out, nearly everyone he cares about will be dead. This we learn on page 1.
But this isn't a whodunnit; the deaths are not the point of the piece. The lives are. For a fair chunk of its running time, Ready, Okay! is fairly episodic in nature: Allen spends a chapter interacting with this family here, then a chapter dealing with that clique there, then a chapter with that girl over yonder. Once all the pieces have been set up, the overarching plot becomes clear and kicks into high gear. But the heart of the novel is not the plot, but the parade of characters we encounter along the way.
Let's meet some of them.
Counting down the days to her breast reduction surgery. Is certain that her 92nd boyfriend's motives are purer than those of the previous 91. Suspects that one cupcake will make her gain thirty pounds, and besides, these sprinkles are unevenly distributed.
Living breathing wet dream with braces; only way to resist urge to jump her is to down one's body weight in saltpeter every morning. Doesn't understand why people think that getting punched in the face hurts.
Water polo team captain. Enjoys reading Kierkegaard and Heidegger. Considers self more of a "deflorist" than a "virgin surgeon." Often to be found philosophizing at length about own penis.
Ready to star in milk commercial at a moment's notice. Future plans include eighteen months of missionary work followed by writing career, rearing seven children. Does have a wild side, as evidenced by possession of a Paul McCartney poster.
Hobbies include pouring corn syrup on trees and gluing potato chips to tables. Dismayed by bourgeoisie's alienation of the proletariat from the fruits of its own labor. Doesn't know nothin' about no light; is just heah tuh take duh pickchuhs.
Career ambition: Laker Girl. Career aptitude: Laker Girl. Writes poems about sweaters. Keeps her secret identity stashed in her locker.
Dresses in black sweatshirt and jeans in 90-degree weather. Can instantly multiply 20-digit numbers in her head. Cannot quite bring herself to talk to anyone.
Single-digit vocabulary. 85% bodyfat. Guilty of attempted canicide.
Pathological fear of any water that doesn't come from a faucet. Sleeps in a bed larger than some countries. Categorically refuses to wear any clothing whatsoever.
Pretty wacky characters for what sounds like a fairly somber storyline. Is this a sitcom or a tearjerker or what? I addressed this in my author blurb over at Amazon; here's what I said:
|The folks at HarperCollins were nice enough to let me have a look at some of the promotional material for my book — jacket copy, press releases — and offer my suggestions before it went to press. The stuff they sent me tended to be full of phrases like "the pain of adolescent turmoil" and "disturbing portrait of a generation" which tended to make the book sound like some deadly somber, painfully earnest cri de coeur. That seemed wrong to me, since a big part of what I wanted to get across was that this book was supposed to be fun; the material I sent in return tended to play up the wacky eccentricities of the various characters, the fact that I tried to put a couple of laughs on nearly every page. But this was probably just as inaccurate, since it makes the book sound like weightless, summery fluff. So is it supposed to be funny or is it supposed to be serious? Really, it's supposed to be both — not just alternating between the two, but both at the same time. My goal was to write a book that'd entertain the pants off people while they were actually reading it, and then after they closed the back cover, make them say, "Hey, wait — there was some substance there." In the end, I think I succeeded; I hope readers will agree.|
So did the readers agree? Here are some reviews:
But eventually the book has to speak for itself, so with that in mind, here are a few samples from Ready, Okay!:
A couple weeks before my first day at Ilium, I got a manila envelope in the mail full of flyers advertising the various extracurricular activities offered there: things like "Incapable of constructing a grammatically correct sentence? Not sure what those comma thingies are for? Then Yearbook is for you!" I was about to throw the whole batch of them out when one of them caught my eye. It said:
Ilium High School offers peer counseling sessions in lieu of detention time for minor infractions of the student conduct code. If you have been issued a citation for such an infraction and wish to exercise this option please consult Mrs. Handey in the front office. If you are interested in becoming a peer counselor please see Assistant Principal Todd at 3:30 PM on September 10th.
September 10th was a Wednesday, meaning that I'd had a grand
total of two days of high school experience under my belt when I went to the office that afternoon.
I figured that was more than enough to give me a comprehensive understanding of the whole
adolescence thing. A quick glance at my map of the school revealed where Assistant Principal
Todd's office was; sitting on a chair right outside the door was a nice-looking girl with long
straight honey-colored hair and a well-scrubbed, freshly varnished look. I recognized her from
a couple of my classes, not so much for what she looked like as for the faded denim jacket she'd
worn the last two days and would go on to wear pretty much every time I saw her thereafter.
I sat down on the ground. "Are you here for the peer counseling meeting?" the girl asked.
"No, I'm here for the sit-in," I said. "Which desk do you think I should cuff myself to?"
"I've been waiting here for fifteen minutes but you're the only other person who's shown up," she said. "I'm September, by the way."
"I'm Allen," I said. "Maybe a lot of people came by but then left once they saw you're the only one who gets a chair."
"So do you know anything about this Doctor Todd?" September asked.
I'd asked Peggy the same question the day before and she'd told me a little bit about him. Apparently Doctor Dennis Todd was quite the legendary figure around Ilium. When the school had first opened he'd been the football coach — his doctorate was in physical education — but he'd worked his way into the administration as assistant principal in charge of discipline. He was something of a recluse, as only those summoned to his office ever saw him; he patrolled the campus through his proxy, a shriveled German crone named Uta Himmler who had worked for the school since opening day. She spent her days looking for people violating the student conduct code and reporting back to Doctor Todd on her walkie-talkie. Anyone caught breaking the rules received the same punishment, be it for littering or for attempting to kill someone with a forklift: a red ticket. These red tickets had to be redeemed at the front office; sometimes you just had to bring it back with a parent's signature, but you could also get assigned detention or, if it was really serious, you might be sent to see Doctor Todd in his office.
The red tickets quickly became the object of both dread and derision, and Uta was universally loathed. The school had only been open for a couple of weeks when she had a song written about her, one that was passed down from generation to generation; it went a little something like this:
(sing to the theme from "The Monkees")
Here she comes...
Walking down the hall...
She's old and ugly...
And only three feet taaaaallllllll...
Hey hey, it's Uta!
Fled from Deutschland after the war!
And now she's come to stop you
From eating in your caaaaarrrrrrrrr...
I was halfway through the chorus when September gave me a look
like she'd just discovered that the calls were coming from inside the house. "What?" I said, turning
around. Right behind me was Uta Himmler herself, all fifty-one chain-smoking inches of her. "Who are
you?" she spat. "No vun may see Doktor Tod vitout appointment. He is busy man."
"We have an appointment," September said meekly. "Sort of."
"Ve shall see about dat," Uta said. She put down her cigarette and took her walkie-talkie out of its holster. A couple bursts of static later she raised an eyebrow in surprise. "Very vell," she said. "You may enter." She picked up her cigarette and marched off to the faculty restroom.
Doctor Todd's office was lit only by the light coming in through the open door and had the feeling of a bunker in the closing stages of a war. "Come in," said a gruff yet plaintive voice in the darkness. "Sit."
September flipped the light switch. Bathed in white fluorescent light the office looked much less eerie and much more like a converted storage closet. Sitting at the desk at the far end of the room was, I assumed, Doctor Todd. If Richard Nixon and Adolf Hitler had ever gotten together and had a child, the result would probably look a lot like the man September and I saw before us: he was intensely jowly, with a ski-slope nose and a toothbrush mustache, and his half-hearted comb-over did nothing to cover up his enormous forehead. "Sit," he repeated.
We sat down. September brushed some nonexistent crumbs off her skirt. Doctor Todd produced a stack of red tickets and handed one to each of us. "Citations," he said. "Note list of violations. Items in boldface fall under my purview. Others possibly referred to you. Brief definitions. Dress code violation. Chief area of concern, bare skin on torso area. Apparel containing indecent slogans. Images also. Specifics unnecessary. Elastic clause: distraction equals violation. Enough said regarding that. Show of affection. Holding hands permitted. Beyond that, increasing penalty concomitant with increasing level of display. Eating in car, very important. No eating in car, ever. Cannot stress enough. Littering, truancy, vandalism..."
Doctor Todd continued in a similar vein for about twenty minutes. September seemed to be making a concentrated effort to follow what he was saying, but after a couple minutes I gave up and instead tried counting the words he said like Echo did when we were little. Eventually he stopped talking and handed both of us a set of thick three-ring binders. "Study," he said. "Learn information. Both medical information and counseling tips. Additional training sessions after school with Mrs. Handey before counseling commences. Make appointment before leaving. That is all."
This "additional training" consisted mainly of quizzes on the material in the big binders - "I never thought I'd have to become such an authority on K-Y jelly," September remarked one afternoon - but we also had a few practice runs with various teachers playing the parts of troubled students. (You haven't lived till you've heard an elderly man in a brown suit tell you he's about to be a teenage mother.) Once September and I had proven to everyone's satisfaction that we weren't liable to do anything in a peer counseling session that'd mean a round of costly lawsuits for the school district, there was only one hurdle left to overcome. Mrs. Handey called us into the office at lunchtime one day and announced, "We're ready to begin! In fact, Doctor Todd already has students lined up for you this afternoon. We'll have September take the girls and Allen, you take the boys."
"Come again?" I said.
"You mean we're not working together?" September asked. "But we trained together, we did all those practice runs together! You never had us do it separately!"
"It's a matter of imbalances," Mrs. Handey said. "We didn't think a boy would listen to a girl, or that a girl would open up to a boy."
"Say what?" I said. "What, is this a Daylight Savings Time thing? Like instead of setting our clocks back an hour we set them back to 1958?"
"If we split you up we can cover twice as many students," Mrs. Handey said.
"No you can't," September said. "Cause I'll quit."
I had to raise my eyebrows at that one. September looked really indignant. "Uh, yeah," I said. "Me too."
Fortunately it was Mrs. Handey and not Doctor Todd we were dealing with, so instead of calling in Uta to drag us away she just threw her hands up in the air. "Fine," she said. "Your first case is at three-thirty."
Hank Andreas, whose real first name was Paul but who called himself
Hank because, as he put it, "if your name were Paul, wouldn't you call yourself Hank?", was the Iliad
photographer and the bane of Benito's existence. It wasn't because he dunked his head in a bottle of
hairspray every morning, making his hair do things that would've left Isaac Newton rubbing his eyes
and muttering something about finding a new line of work; nor was it the fact that all his shirts had
the name "Hank" embroidered on the pocket and that he insisted on buttoning them all the way up; it
wasn't even because he shaved his eyebrows. Benito could handle these little eccentricities just fine.
It was the photos that Hank turned in that gave her cerebral hemorrhages on a regular basis.
She'd quickly come to expect this particular headache every three weeks, but the first batch of photos in September had really caught her off guard. Hank had handed her a diskette full of pictures and was sauntering out the door when Benito barked, "Wait."
"Is there a problem?" Hank asked casually.
"Is there a problem?" Benito repeated. "I'd say there's a problem. Look at this!"
Hank looked at the picture that Benito had loaded up onto the screen. "Yeah, I'm particularly pleased with that one," he said.
"Pleased?" Benito said. She dug a copy of his assignment sheet out of her notebook. "This was supposed to be a picture of the football game."
"It is," Hank said. "The assignment didn't specify which element of the game to emphasize..."
"It shouldn't have to," Benito said. "It should be obvious. Someone catching a pass, making an exciting run, celebrating a victory... even people cheering in the crowd if the action on the field is too boring. But under no circumstances should your only picture be of the backup quarterback picking his nose."
"But this subject has greater symbolic weight," Hank said. "It's emblematic of not only the game in question but of American sport culture in general. I call it 'Digging In on Third Down.' Besides," he added, "the picture of him hockin' a loogie came out all blurry."
"Look," Benito said, "let me make this perfectly clear. You're not here to make statements about 'symbolic weight,' okay? You're just here to take the pictures. Got it?"
"You're alienating me from the fruits of my labor," Hank said.
"And you're just going to have to deal with that," Benito said.
"Fuckin' bourgeoisie," Hank muttered.
Fortunately, Hank had other outlets for his creative urge. An idea occurred to him one day as he was standing in the wheel, surrounded by lockers in every direction; a few hours of stencil work and several cans of spraypaint later, each locker door bore its very own portrait of Andy Warhol. Hank probably would've even been able to avoid getting suspended for vandalism if only he'd been able to resist standing in the wheel and crying, "Ah, the irony! The layers upon layers of meta-commentary!"
Then there was the thing with the tree, but that was more memorable for Holdn's reaction to it than the stunt itself. Holdn Holdnowski was Hank's constant companion, and like Sluggo the water polo player, he looked like a little kid — the difference was that while Sluggo looked like the doofy third-grade bully, Holdn looked like the adorable four-year-old grandson that every nursing home inmate insists on showing you pictures of. He even had permanently pink cheeks like he'd always just come in from playing in the snow. This alone was apparently enough to secure him a steady stream of girlfriends, none of whom lasted for more than a couple of weeks.
Holdn was the ad manager for the Iliad, which was a pretty important position: we got almost no funding from the school district, so any expenses we might incur, from printing costs to computer repairs, had to come out of our ad revenue. Greg Garner had managed the books the previous year, and left Holdn with a dozen solid accounts; Holdn, however, tended to think of school as voluntary, and since school included the Iliad, those accounts had dwindled down to a microscopic ad for Fred's Quality Footwear on the sports page and the occasional sheet of Taco Junta coupons. Benito was understandably pissed about the fact that we were now bleeding cash like a piggy bank perforated with machine-gun fire, but no one else wanted the job so Holdn was allowed to stick around.
Holdn was reasonably convinced that he was the coolest human being this side of the international date line, but even he had to admit that he couldn't top Hank's stunts. He tried to be gracious about it, but grace wasn't really part of Holdn's emotional vocabulary. So after Hank pulled off the Warhol caper, Holdn pulled him aside in the Iliad room and offered his congratulations. "Not bad," he said airily. "I've got a bunch of ideas of my own I've been working on but I can't ever find the time to really do them. We ought to work together, you know? Between my brainpower and your dedication we could really accomplish something."
"Isn't this how capitalism started?" Hank asked.
So a couple of months later Echo and I were walking to school when we noticed that the little tree out in front of the office was drooping. Every branch looked like it weighed a couple metric tons and the whole thing was dripping wet, like it couldn't stop crying. Quite frankly, it looked very depressed. You know society's going to hell when even the trees are overcome with angst.
"What the hell?" I said. "That's one selective rainstorm."
"It's not rain," Echo said. She brushed a fingertip against the trunk of the tree and tested it with her tongue. "It's maple syrup," she said.
It wasn't exactly a big mystery who the culprit was. When Hank showed up for journalism class he received a hero's welcome; we were all congratulating him on a stunt well done when the Iliad room door flew open and Holdn stormed in. "Okay," he demanded, "where the hell's Andreas?"
It was kind of a weird question to ask since Hank was standing right in front of him. "I haven't seen him," Hank said.
"Where've you been?" Hayley asked.
"I overslept," Holdn said. "Wh—"
"You overslept for seven and a half hours?" Hayley said.
"Yeah," Holdn said. "That's not important. What the hell is with the tree, Andreas? I thought you said we were going to work together on these things!"
"No, that's what you said," Hank said. "You need to brush up on your pronouns."
"Well fuck you!" Holdn shouted. He kicked one of the trash cans. We had these two big metal trash cans in the Iliad room that made a cool KRONG! sound when you kicked them. He turned to the rest of us. "You were all in this together, weren't you?" he sneered. "I'll bet you all got together and said, hey, let's pull this really cool stunt — but let's not tell Holdn! Let's all just exclude Holdn! That's how it went, didn't it? Didn't it?" He kicked the trash can again and put a pretty big dent in it.
"That's not true, Holdn," Peggy protested. "None of us knew any more about it than y—"
"Oh, what the hell do you know about it?" Holdn snapped. "You don't know what they're like! You all just spend your days trying to come up with ways to make me look like an idiot, don't you? Don't you?" He picked up the trash can without the dent in it and shook it. I guess it was supposed to be threatening but in reality all it did was make him look like an idiot. "You're all against me! Plotting against me! Admit it!"
"No one's against you," Peggy said, in a voice like buttermilk. "We care about you!"
"We do?" Cat said, scratching her head. "Did I miss a memo?"
"C'mon, this isn't funny," Peggy said. She got up and went over to Holdn. "Holdn, put the trash can down," she said. "No one's plotting against you."
"I am," Zab said.
"See?" Holdn screeched, waving Peggy away. "I told you!"
"Don't you think you may be making too much of a few bucketfuls of syrup?" Hayley asked.
"Fuck you!" Holdn spat. "Fuck all of you!" He took the trash can he was holding and chucked it out the door. It bounced a couple of times and went rolling down the hall.
"What a catharsis," Hank said.
"I think that's supposed to go in the dumpster, actually," Cat said.
"Fuck you!" Holdn shouted.
"Yeah, well, you already said that," Hank said.
The door opened and Uta Himmler came in. "Who trew dis trash can?" she asked. "Whoever trew it vill pick it up right now, ja?"
Holdn pushed Uta out of the way and stomped off. "Man, he sure showed me," Hank said.
"Isn't anyone going to go after him?" Peggy asked.
"What for?" Cat asked.
"Well, I am," Peggy said. She followed Holdn out of the building.
"No vun is picking up de trash can," Uta said. She pointed at me. "You. Pick it up."
"Me?" I said. "I didn't—"
"Do it," Uta said.
"But I just work here," I muttered.
I flipped my history book back open to the page I'd been
reading, but it was no use. I couldn't concentrate. All I wanted to do was somehow console
Sarah for having had a lousy life and the only way I could think of to do that was cuddle
with her for a while, and since half an hour earlier I hadn't been sure she wouldn't attack
me, that didn't seem like much of a possibility. It was a shame, too, because she was
eminently cuddlable. I couldn't believe I'd let spite blind me to this fact for so long.
How could I have missed those gorgeous, soulful eyes? I looked at her over the top of my
book and watched her work on her math. I watched and watched. Time seemed to wind down
like an antique record player. I'd look at the mirrored clock on the wall next to the door
and it'd be 5:57, and then I'd spend the next couple of hours pretending to read and when I
looked up it'd be 5:57 and five seconds. All my senses suddenly seemed heightened: I could
hear Sarah's pencil moving across the page even over the whirr of the air conditioner. I
could feel each individual nerve in my body and the blood rushing around in my veins and I
knew that if I scratched an itch I'd rip my flesh open and bleed to death. Naturally, a
hundred thousand itches sprang to life all over my body: my cheek, my elbow, the back of
my knee, the tip of my nose, everywhere. Sarah chewed on the end of her pencil. As I
watched her, I felt watched. I felt like the Channel 5 NewsCopter was hovering inches from
my face broadcasting my every itch and chill on a live feed to a rapt audience. I looked at
the clock. It was 5:57 and seven seconds.
I got up and looked out the window. I was acutely aware of the fact that Sarah was female. That the word "ILIUM" emblazoned across her uniform didn't catch the light that way because of any property of the fabric but because of the soft swell underneath. That she was naked beneath her clothes. There was her cheerleading uniform and then there were her underthings and under that she was completely naked. I watched the twilight dissolve into the dull pink glow of night in Southern California and tried not to obsess about this fact. I heard a couple of dull thuds behind me and I looked away from the window: Sarah had kicked off her shoes. This was a mistake, because it drew my attention to her legs. Her beautiful soft legs that didn't stop when they disappeared beneath her short pleated skirt but kept on going. Right on going all the way up. I longed to follow them there. It dawned on me that the solution to all Sarah's problems and all my problems as well would be for us to sleep together. The logic in this was, in Sarah's words, perfect, exquisite, and absolute.
The phone rang and I picked it up. I couldn't understand what the voice on the other end was saying till the blood had a second to rush back up to my brain. "-looked out the window it'd started to rain," said a voice, which I suddenly realized was Molly's. "Can you bring over my rain stuff?"
"Uh, sure," I said. "Where are you again?"
"I'm at Rachel's," she said. "Weren't you listening?"
"Must be a bad connection," I said. "I'll be over in a minute or two." I hung up the phone. "I have to run across the street," I said. "Make yourself at home. Mi casa es su casa. You probably shouldn't go into Krieg's room unless you've had your shots, though. I'll be back in a bit."
Sarah didn't look up from her math. "Okay," she said. I stole one last glance at her legs and noticed, right at her hemline, the end of an ugly scar on her thigh. I couldn't tell how long it was but it looked like it'd been a pretty nasty cut. Maybe she'd fallen off her bike when she was little. But I couldn't think about that now — I had a sister to rescue.
I went downstairs and got Molly's bag of rain gear out of the closet by the garage door. It was still barely misting out — it was the kind of evening where you couldn't actually feel the rain, but if you were carrying a sheet of paper it'd get all limp and droopy after a few minutes, and that was enough for Molly. Molly wasn't necessarily an aquaphobe in any kind of absolute sense: she liked the kind of water that came out of the faucet enough that a couple years back her main birthday present had been one of those handheld shower massagers and she'd been ecstatic. But water in an outdoor setting — oceans, rivers, lakes, rain, you name it - was her mortal enemy. As far as she was concerned it might as well have been hydrochloric acid. She was convinced that if a drop of it touched her a house would fall on her or something.
The door to the Monihans' was open. Even before I actually stepped inside I was enveloped by the aroma of dandruff and fiber supplements; you could almost tell that the shag carpeting would turn out to be mint-green just by smell. The Monihans had an old electric organ that they let Molly come over and play every now and again, though I have no idea if she was any good. They also had a granddaughter named Rachel who was staying with them while her mom was doing time on a drug charge. She was exactly Molly's age, but all that proved was exactly how meaningless age can be. Molly was probably about eighty times smarter than Rachel, but still, she was just a kid. Rachel, though, well, just from the way she stood you could tell that Rachel hadn't been a kid in years and years. Sometimes I'd see her waiting out in front of the house in her trademark threadbare orange sweater until some guys in a big car came and took her off somewhere. There was apparently a whole subculture of these way-precocious pre- or just-barely-pubescent girls springing up - sometimes September and I would see them at parties we were working, some of them eleven, even ten years old. I suspected that they could take care of themselves a hell of a lot better than I could.
I heard Molly say her goodbyes to the old folks and then she came out to the little foyer where I was standing. She was wearing a green-and-orange-plaid dress with little pink hearts all over it. "I thought it wasn't supposed to rain in Southern California," she grumbled. "This is the third time this year and it's only February. I swear, I'm moving to Arizona. Or Mauritania." She opened the bag and put on her gloves, knee-high galoshes, and ankle-length raincoat with hood and clear plastic face-shield. She was prepared to survive not only a light drizzle but also a Level 4 Biohazard — which, to her, wouldn't have been as bad.
She snapped open her umbrella as we stepped out into the mist. "You know what the worst part about rain is?" she asked.
"It's wet?" I said.
"It's death," she said.
"At least I got the vowel right," I said.
"It doesn't come from anywhere," she said. "We know where the water vapor is, more or less, but it doesn't become rain until it's falling, and once you can tell it's falling, it's already rain. There's no identifiable point at which the non-rain becomes rain. It's like the opposite of a ray. A ray starts at a particular point but doesn't end anywhere in particular. A raindrop doesn't begin anywhere in particular but does stop somewhere: when it smacks into something. Which makes it like consciousness. There's no identifiable point at which consciousness begins — it's a gradual process. But the point at which it ends is very specific. Death. Rain is death."
"Deep," I said.
Andrew Plotkin has written a piece of interactive fiction called Shade which, it has been argued, can be viewed as a companion piece to Ready, Okay!. You can download Shade in .z5 format or play it online.
The German translation of Ready, Okay!, Alles klar?, has arrived, complete with random cover boy wearing hideous shirt! Jöe-Böb says check it out.
Hey, kids! Ready, Okay! will also improve your SAT score!
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