Wednesday, January 04, 2006

A Better Idea Than a Book

Maybe it's just the fact that my favorite book as a teenager was "A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag" by Gordon Korman, but I've always had a soft spot for a good young adult novel. And by "good" I mean something that's funny, unsentimental and fast-paced -- a novel for the young adult who doesn't like sappy or preachy stories.

That's why I had some high hopes for a novel I never got around to reading as a teenager, "The Grounding of Group 6" by Julian F. Thompson. The book has a great, dark, funny premise: five teenagers, each in one way or another a disappointment to his or her parents, are sent to a boarding school that specializes in killing troublesome teenagers and disposing of the bodies. The kids realize that their parents have put a contract out on them, and team up to foil the killers who run the school and turn the tables on their parents. The premise, bluntly stated by one of the characters, is that the only reason parents don't kill their kids is that they can't get away with it; but what if there was a place that would provide that service for them and let them get away with it?

That's a perfect premise for a young-adult story: it confirms the paranoid fears teenagers have about those twin pillars of authority, parents and schoolteachers, and it offers a revenge fantasy where they get back at them, but good.

Unfortunately, the book takes too long to get this plot into gear, and makes the dubious choice of adding an older character to the mix: Nat, a twentysomething who has been hired by the school to assist in disposing of the kids, but ends up joining them, helping them out, and even becoming romantically involved with one of them. To have a non-teenager at the center of the book sort of dilutes the appeal of the teen revenge fantasy.

The book is at its best in the scenes with the killer teachers, especially the leader, Doctor, who explains his philosophy in flowery, James-Bond-villain dialogue: "Sometimes, a person gets a lemon, even if the name is Cadillac or Rolls. And if you do, it doesn't seem to do a bit of good to take it back and back and...." And some of the violent deaths are pretty funny, particularly the character whose dying words are "you are a plecklerucker micklestitch." But all in all, the idea is more fun than the actual novel.

The novel was optioned for the movies but never filmed; a movie of it, rewritten without the character of Nat and with a less flashback-heavy structure, might work.

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