High School Faust

When I mentioned a week or so ago that I was in the mood for comfort reading, my friend Rebecca said she had just the book for me. A copy duly arrived in the post of Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich, a comic take on Faust set in an American high school (on the back it’s described as ‘Clueless for boys’). Whereupon, Mister Litlove fell on it, started reading it (this was a Saturday), and finished it before dinner that evening. I knew then that I was in for a treat.

Seymour Herson is the most unpopular kid at his bottom tier public school, Glendale Academy, in New York. On the whole, Seymour is okay with this. It’s not like he wouldn’t want to be one of the in-crowd, or good at his subjects, or even in with a chance with the precocious Jessica, whom everyone wants to date. But he understands the law of the jungle, and that someone has to be the outcast, and given that he sits alone in the cafeteria, consuming cartons of chocolate milk at lunchtime and preparing for after school detention, he accepts where the buck stops. He’s the only child of two sweet, rather weak-willed parents who love him and just want to be an okay sort of family, and he spends his time playing monopoly with them in the evenings, when he isn’t video gaming.

All of this changes when Elliot Allagash joins the school. You’ll know him from other incarnations. Elliot is another only son, locked in a dysfunctional twosome with his super-rich father. His family have all been wealthy, since a long lost ancestor invented paper, and with nothing to work for, Elliot and his father, Terry, have put their considerable assets to beating the system and achieving the impossible in nefarious and extraordinary ways. Elliot has already been thrown out of a dozen schools, but his father has donated just too much money to Glendale for him to be leaving any time soon. So to cure his chronic boredom, he takes Seymour on as a project. Making him the most popular kid in class looks like the toughest challenge he could undertake. And all Seymour has to do is absolutely anything that Elliot tells him.

So you’ll be familiar with where we’re going, but the devil is in the detail, as it were. All the fun of this book is in the getting there, and marvelling at the feats of imagination and daring that the Allagashes pull off to satisfy their perverse desires. While Elliot is working on Seymour, he often pauses to tell him anecdotes about other stunts he, or his father, have pulled off, and these interpolated stories add another layer of richness to the plot. There’s a very basic morality at work, though, which suggests that extreme wealth corrupts absolutely, distorts the whole notion of achievement and shows up a world that is alarmingly full of people who can be bought. But this dark undercurrent slinks along underneath the popcorn fun of high school hi-jinks and the mood is generally hilarious. Elliot soon has his way, and Seymour finds himself cutting a swathe through his enemies and heading for class president.

Four years pass, and when we pick up the narrative, Seymour is finishing off school, having been accepted at Harvard to study French (which he can’t actually speak, write or understand). Elliot has turned his life around, but Seymour has never quite fallen for the magic of megabucks. Underneath it all, he hasn’t changed an atom from the shy, ordinary, gentle boy he was at the start. So when he comes across one of the victims from the earlier pranks he pulled with Eliot, and it turns out to be a girl he rather likes, Seymour’s conscience starts to bother him. But Seymour is weak and Elliot is impossibly strong. How will Faust free himself from Satan’s embrace?

This is a good-hearted novel from start to finish, so I think I can safely get away with saying you can expect a happy ending. It is a very quick read, wholly engrossing and highly entertaining. There’s no deep, heavy message, nor are there any of the gross-out moments that characterise so much teenage-related fiction. In fact it’s good, clean fun all the way, a little festive bauble of a book and just what I was in the mood for (and Mister Litlove, too!).

8 thoughts on “High School Faust

  1. I hadn’t heard of this one ’til now, and it sounds fun – I’ll have to keep an eye out for it. I don’t read many YA books with male protagonists – not that I’m opposed to them, just that it seems like there are fewer of them, or maybe I just don’t hear as much about them.

  2. Wow, this DOES sound like Clueless for boys! Which in turn makes me wonder whether Emma was in some way a retelling of the Faust story—a weird connection that would never have occurred to me. A Faust where the Satan character is eventually reformed by marriage. And is also oddly a product of her circumstances (but then, you could argue the same thing is true about Satan’s predicament after the fall). Reading it like this might actually convince me to give Emma another go!

  3. re: book review request by award-winning author

    Dear Tales from the Reading Room:

    I’m an award-winning author with a new book of fiction out this fall. Ugly To Start With is a series of thirteen interrelated stories about childhood published by West Virginia University Press.

    Can I interest you in reviewing it?

    If you write me back at johnmcummings@aol.com, I can email you a PDF of my book. If you require a bound copy, please ask, and I will forward your reply to my publisher. Or you can write directly to Abby Freeland at:

    Abby.Freeland@mail.wvu.edu

    My publisher, I should add, can also offer your readers a free excerpt of my book through a link from your blog to my publisher’s website:
    http://wvupressonline.com/cummings_ugly_to_start_with_9781935978084

    Here’s what Jacob Appel, celebrated author of
    Dyads and The Vermin Episode, says about my new collection: “In Ugly to Start With, set in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, Cummings tackles the challenges of boyhood adventure and family conflict in a taut, crystalline style that captures the triumphs and tribulations of small-town life. He has a gift for transcending the particular experiences to his characters to capture the universal truths of human affection and suffering–emotional truths that the members of his audience will recognize from their own experiences of childhood and adolescence.”

    My short stories have appeared in more than seventy-five literary journals, including North American Review, The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Chattahoochee Review. Twice I have been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. My short story “The Scratchboard Project” received an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2007.

    I am also the author of the nationally acclaimed coming-of-age novel The Night I Freed John Brown (Philomel Books, Penguin Group, 2009), winner of The Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers (Grades 7-12) and one of ten books recommended by USA TODAY.

    For more information about me, please visit:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Michael_Cummings

    Thank you very much, and I look forward to hearing back from you.

    Kindly,

    John Michael Cummings

  4. I like the idea of a festive little bauble of a book–it sounds like fun. I think I could have used a friend like Elliott in school (well, maybe anyway). Now if your son decided to read it, too, you could have a family book group discussion!😉

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