[4 September 2007]
It has often been noted by nerd philosophers and bemused ex-geeks that those who were picked on and likewise alienated in high school will one day be cool when they get older. I do not know whether this phenomenon is a natural occurrence or the byproduct of a benevolent nerd god, but I have experienced it first hand and know it is true. The disaffected and smart ended up going to colleges where they become the interesting, cool people, and those that picked on them are left scratching their heads.
If you fall into the former category then I Love You, Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle is the book for you. It’s about a typical geek named Dennis Cooverman who uses his valedictorian speech as a platform to confess his love to the most popular girl in school, and chronicles the subsequent developments. This fun and entertaining book reads like the fantasy of one of those reformed geeks sitting in their dorm rooms, enjoying their new cool status, and wishing they could do it over again.
Larry Doyle’s book begins with an important assumption that requires the reader to give the story a little benefit of the doubt. That Dennis the uber-smart valedictorian would actually have the nerve to use his speech to confess his love for a popular cheerleader while simultaneously insulting all those that wronged him before is something that some may find hard to swallow. That the clearly typical, yet still interesting, nerd will have the capabilities of successfully accomplishing this feat requires a modicum of suspension-of-disbelief. As a geek I know for a fact that one of my clan’s clear distinguishing characteristics is that until the paradigm we live in affords us an opportunity to change, we will be unable to rise above our stations. That Dennis is able to overcome this seems inconsistent with the nerd milieu and the character himself as we begin to know him. Only upon accepting this leap will we discover just what happens when the king of the nerds tells the cheerleader that he has been coveting her from afar.
Following his declaration Dennis anticipates that everyone will respect him for his daring and edgy speech, but is sorely disappointed to learn that few care. Besides Rich, the movie-quoting, sexually confused best friend, and the principal, there is very little reaction until Beth Cooper and her psycho army boyfriend Kevin are introduced. Beth is embarrassed but flattered, and Kevin wants to destroy the young punk who is hitting on his woman. Before being manhandled by the army man, Dennis has time to awkwardly invite Beth to a party.
The remainder of the story rests on a two-part assumption that stems from the Beth character. The first part is that after graduation she will actually show up at the party hosted by Dennis and his erstwhile friend, and then that she will subsequently see through Dennis’ nerdy exterior to the nice guy within. The first part of the assumption is handled when it is revealed that Beth and her cool friends decide to go to because they “thought it would be funny.” The second leap is barely noticeable as the plot drives forward a hilarious series of events that include romance, car chases, and murder. There are cops, drinking, lesbian action, and all the other ingredients for a night of teenage debauchery, and as it progresses Dennis begins to see Beth as a real person and not just a puberty-inspired fantasy.
The story is a mixture of innovations and archetypes formed in the traditional high school setting where people are defined by categories as opposed to characteristics. There are several necessary cliches the writer utilizes as context to his story. This is not to say that Doyle is being unoriginal, it is simply that these archetypal accoutrements add a sense of authenticity to the book’s tone. There are evil PE teachers, parents unsuccessfully trying to be cool, stupid jocks, and slutty rich girls. It’s what Doyle does with these stereotypes that makes the book so much fun. Watching the two nerds and the three popular girls traverse the now meaningless social dynamic right before college and make them somewhat irrelevant is intriguing. The characters are typical manifestations of this world while simultaneously being original and interesting.
While the context of the book often seems like an adolescent fantasy, there are wonderful moments of reality that add substance to the story. One of the defining elements is a scene where Dennis watches Beth touch a liquor store employees package in exchange for giving them booze. This moment shatters many of the idealized images of Beth that Dennis had constructed over the years. While it looks like this will ultimately destroy Dennis obsession, his affections are later reaffirmed. This event resonates accurately with that moment in a teenager’s life when they learn that love and the people they care for, aren’t always going to fit into the ideas we create for them. It was this moment that made the book feel so real, much in the same way Beth became a real person in the eyes of Dennis. A break from the fun to offer a moment of savage reality is a necessary plot device for this type of story and Doyle executes it flawlessly.
I Love You, Beth Cooper is an excellent addition to growing list of nerd-inspired fiction. Anyone who enjoyed The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga, or King Dork by Frank Portman, will easily take to this one, too.