If Holden Caulfield traded his cynicism for flamboyancy, gobbled ecstasy, and dabbled in musical theater he probably would have produced How I Paid For College, A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship and Musical Theater, the riotously funny debut novel from writer Marc Acito, the columnist behind “The Gospel According to Marc,” a syndicated humor column.
Set in 1983 in Wallingford, a sleepy New Jersey suburb, How I Paid For College follows the flamboyant exploits of 17-year-old Edward Zanni, a sexually confused high-school kid who dreams of enrollment at Juilliard while struggling to convince his financially obsessed father that drama is a viable career path.
Marc Acito, who has been called the “gay Dave Barry,” understands sexual confusion and explores it subtly and lightly, avoiding a heavy-handed approach. In Eddie, he creates a self-assured character who at once embraces his sexual curiosity while running away from it.
While Edward struggles to define his sexual nature, he manages to amass a peanut gallery of strange and eccentric friends. His best friend, Paula, is a shallow aspiring actress who assimilates herself into passing fads. Overweight, she’s convinced that she should have been born in the 19th century, when curved women where more appreciated.
Doug and Natie are friends from opposite ends of the spectrum. Natie is an overachieving nerd who’s bent on committing larcenous acts. Doug is a typical jock who, by joining the high school drama class, has befriended this bizarre group of stragglers. Edward falls for him and tries, in subtle and not so subtle ways, to manipulate the macho Doug into sexual experiments.
Acito asserts that his is truly a Cinderella Story. He writes on his website, “On the first of October 2003 I did not yet have an agent. By the end of the month I had two book deals and had optioned the movie rights to Columbia Pictures. An offer was made by Broadway Books just two days after the manuscript was messengered to the editor.”
It’s little wonder that the book was snapped up so quickly. How I Paid For College is a funny, light-hearted study of teenagers struggling to find themselves. It’s like a John Hughes movie without the sappy melodrama. Told in the first person, the narration is light and often hilarious. And the characters are richly drawn-particularly Paula, Edward’s Father, and Dagmar, his father’s nasty fiancée.
When Dagmar marries her way into the family, she exerts enormous power over Ed’s father, an old school Italian-American businessman who emphasizes his success and tries to instill in his children his corporate attitude. But the rift between Edward and his evil step-monster turns explosive when Mr. Zanni refuses to pay for Edward’s tuition into Juilliard.
He leaves the nest and moves in with Kelly, his girlfriend, and her off-kilter mother. He resolves to get a job to simultaneously prove his independence and pay for college. But when he proves unequipped to handle real work, he’s forced to take drastic measures: namely, larceny. And that’s where his group of friends comes into the picture. Natie, who has a preternatural knowledge of criminal activities, devises various schemes to help Eddie pay for college. Larceny, bribery, and money laundering are among his finest achievements.
Acito does a wonderful job of building the comedy to wonderfully absurd crescendos without threatening the integrity of the story. He’s a humorist who shows no restrictions, who constantly, and ingeniously, exaggerates the comedy without recycling his jokes. He is also adept at fleshing out dynamic characters that readers can relate to and sympathize with.
His novel is closer to an ’80s comedy than the American Pie series and other recent theatrical misfires. He deftly explores teenage sexuality without exploiting it, and he avoids treating his characters as thin vehicles that he can deride and toss into comically absurd situations.
There’s a love and appreciation of his characters and that’s what makes this story work. While the absurdly sophisticated schemes to make money grow more and more complex, we never doubt the plausibility of the crimes.
How I Paid For College is a terrific entry into the market because it takes prides in its premise. It’s a work of light fiction, and it doesn’t apologize for it. It is a nice aside to the absurdly pretentious, and simply ridiculous, titles that have been published over the past half-decade.