How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theater by Marc Acito

[23 September 2005]

By Jodie Janella Horn


In 1980s suburban New Jersey, all Edward Zanni wants in the world is to go to Julliard to study drama. As is often the case with teenagers, Edward is solely focused on his future acting career, and everything is incidental to his goals. He divides his time between hanging out with his supporting cast of friends and rehearsing plays and is highly resentful of any other use of his time. Everything about his speech, mannerisms, obliviousness to his own weaknesses, is so spot on that I am pretty sure I went high school with Edward Zanni.

At the opening of the book, Edward is enjoying the summer with his best friend, the prototypical chubby fag hag, Paula. As a pair, they think of themselves as exceptionally clever, again in that way that adolescents often do, as they cook up schemes for their “Summer of Magic and Mischief” that include the command to “have delightful, madcap adventures.” Fleshing out their crew are Natie, a pathologically sinister nerd; Kelly, Edward’s dancer girlfriend; Doug, a football player turned drama dork; and Ziba, a Persian sophisticate.

Repeatedly I am struck by how closely I am reminded of details of my high school life that I had forgotten. This is not something that happens to me often when reading adolescent characters, but the arrogance, competitive camaraderie, and attempts at a worldliness that transcend the suburbs is so accurate. Edward is not a fish out of water or a struggling outsider concentrating on his differences, as it seems every adolescent in contemporary literature is. He feels very at home with his friends and has no shortage of self-esteem.

Early in the book Edward acknowledges his bisexuality, but it’s not a huge hang up for him. Sexuality outside of the standard is merely a badge of cosmopolitism, saying of his prior gay encounter: “I suppose that technically makes me bisexual, but I prefer to simply think of myself as open-minded.” While dating Kelly, he becomes hung up on Doug, trying to engineer situations in which a blowjob might be appropriate. When caught gazing upon Doug’s football player body, there is a simple, positively received confession. The treatment of Edward’s sexuality as refreshingly plain as real-life comings out often are.

After divorcing, Edward’s mother left their family to find herself spiritually in various obscure locales throughout the world. Edward was then alone in the house with his father, a square businessman with little appreciation for Edward’s dramatic aspirations. Once his father hooks up with Dagmar, an increasingly evil German photographer, his father informs him that he will only fund business school. If he wants to go study drama he must fund it himself. In a huff, Edward moves out of his home and in with Kelly and her sympathetic therapist mother, Kathleen, and begins scheming for ways to pay for college on his own.

While Natie is often the guy that the rest of the crew is trying to ditch, he becomes more desirable company as his utility increases. Natie cooks up several schemes for procuring money including embezzlement and extortion. To supplement the stolen income, Edward attempts to get a job and fails repeatedly. “I mean, one little flesh wound to a Pekingese is all it takes to get fired as a dog groomer, even if you artfully arrange its hair so the scar doesn’t show.” Edward cares so little about any skill other than acting, that he is unfazed by this: “I view my ineptitude for the working world as a sure sign that I’m best suited for a life in the arts.” He’s fortunate then to have Natie around, who routinely bails him out of schemes gone awry and is responsible for the best capers in the book.

Throughout the book there is a running gag that Edward is always mistaken for a waiter. Towards the end it gets unbearably tedious, such that even when dressed up as a priest he is still being mistaken for staff. Though the book as a whole is silly, it’s just an extension of Edward’s humor. The waiter joke is external to Edward and therefore departs awkwardly from the universe within the book. Every time the gag was used it repelled me from the otherwise great book. However, another gag in which Edward comments on the actions of another character by including a paragraph that simply says the characters name is funny every time, with a humor tightly derived from the characters themselves. After being arrested, Edward says to himself, “I must remember this shame for my acting,” and follows it with a paragraph that says, “Edward.”

What Marc Acito does so well in How I Paid For College is capture the insularity of a teenager’s world. Edward’s world is small and self-contained. Things that conflict with his reality are routinely dismissed in favor of a simple faith that things will work out. Making it all the more fun are constant references to theatre and musicals, especially. Edward says, “I’m going to assume that anyone reading this story has a working knowledge of the Barbra Streisand oeuvre.” You don’t need such knowledge to enjoy this book, but it certainly helps.

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