First published on Queer and Loathing in America
Be True To Your School by Greg Herren
One Saturday night during my senior year, I was out with a bunch of friends and for some reason we stopped at a mini-mart on 6th Street in Emporia, Kansas. I don’t remember what we stopped for; I didn’t drink or smoke until after I graduated, and I distinctly remember it was during high school. I don’t remember who I was with or anything else about that evening—all I do remember is that the mini-mart had a revolving metal rack of paperbacks standing next to a revolving rack of comic books, and when I stopped to look at the comic books and the books (I always did this, attracted as a moth is to a flame wherever I was), there was a book with a cheerleader waving her pom-pons, a football player, a boy holding a camera, and a rather unattractive girl clutching books to her chest. Impulsively I grabbed the book and bought it, and the next day, a Sunday, I read it in my bed.
The book was Yearbook, by David Marlow.
High school wasn’t easy for me. Being a gay kid in the mid to late 1970’s in rural, conservative, deeply Christian Kansas wasn’t the ideal situation. I thought there was something wrong with me, and I didn’t feel close to anyone. This book, set in a high school in a town on Long Island in the late 1950’s, surprisingly resonated with me. It had four characters: Guy, an out of place, mocked and picked on sophomore who was smaller than everyone else and had no friends; Corky, the football star and golden boy that everyone admired, loved and wanted to be; Ro-Anne, his girlfriend, the beautiful and vivacious cheerleader absolutely certain of her place in the school pecking order; and unattractive Amy, smart, too tall, with frizzy hair and braces and a big nose and acne, also laughed at who uses her brains and her wit to withdraw into her own world where intelligence and brains are more valued than her looks.
Like me, Guy was a disappointment to his parents and his older siblings. I could so relate to him and his habit of losing himself into his hobbies to hide the loneliness. (For me, it was books and writing.) But Guy’s skill with photography brings him to popular Corky’s attention, and suddenly Guy is thrust into the popular circle, under Corky’s wing. Corky wants to be all over the yearbook, you see, and what better way to do that than to become friends with the best photographer in the school, an outsider?
This plan of Corky’s is what sets the story in motion, and for 244 pages I was completely riveted. Yearbook was completely unsentimental, and in the hands of a lesser writer the characters would have easily devolved into stereotypes. Marlow instead turned them into real people; beautiful Ro-Anne’s meanness became understandable once you knew her back story, so instead of being the typical pretty cheerleader ‘mean girl’ we’ve seen all too often in fiction and in film her behavior becomes understandable. None of the characters are perfect; you can feel Amy’s pain, Guy’s desperate need for acceptance, and the incredible burden of parental expectation that almost crushes Corky.
It was also one of the first times I’d ever read about a teenager starting to evolve sexually the way Guy was, and having feelings—both sexual and emotional—for another boy and being horribly confused by those feelings and also understanding those feelings had to be kept secret. Guy was never really sure what he felt for Corky; was he attracted to him, or were his feelings based in gratitude for being rescued from obscurity, being pulled inside and accepted by the popular crowd? And since his body was changing and developing, was it that gratitude, acceptance and love he was feeling being mixed up with sexual feelings?
As I said, the book wasn’t sentimental and there were no happy endings for any of the four. It was stunningly real, harsh and painful.
Guy Fowler arrived at the top of Edson hill at 8:45 and knew he was never going to live through the rest of the day. Monday, the twelfth of September, he made an entry in his mental diary: my last sunrise.
Those opening lines resonated with me; that was exactly how I felt on my first day of high school my freshman year. I also didn’t think I would survive high school.
Down in the girls’ locker room, beautiful and bouncy, giggling and gossiping, a voluptuous Ro-Anne Sommers zipped herself into her snug red and yellow outfit and looked at the ID bracelet she was wearing: CORKY.
Later in the first chapter, we meet Amy for the first time as she walks into the school assembly for new students, covering it for the school paper, remembering how the editor talked her into doing something she clearly didn’t want to do, and this:
Leonard peered up at Amy through thick eyeglasses, wondering as he did everytime he saw her just how she had managed so well to miss out on nature’s blessings—a girl whose hair was not just curly but kinky; a complexion not just troubled with acne, but riddled; teeth not just crooked but wired top to bottom, with marionette rubber bands which restricted movement as they were suspended from tiny hooks. Then there was the matter of that nose. A regular baked potato.
At the assembly, the reader finally meets Corky, as the principal introduces various student leaders to the new students:
Corky rose to his feet, waved and conquered. The girls wanted him. The boys wanted to be him. Tall and uncommonly handsome, charming, popular and powerfully built, Corky Henderson stood onstage, way up at the top of the totem pole, coolest of them all. Each short wave of his carefully parted dark hair was thicker than the next. His green eyes smiled at his appreciative audience and his dimples deepened with good reason: barely eighteen and already a legend.
And Guy’s reaction:
Guy applauded, too. His stomach gurgled. Adrenaline shot every which way. In all his life he’d never seen anyone he’d so instantly admired. For whatever Guy Fowler wasn’t, Corky Henderson most assuredly was. Guy calculated what it would take to be like the amazing fellow now center stage, soaking up all that limelight. Just another twelve inches off the ground; sixty additional pounds of sinewy muscle; the smile, the confidence, the right clothes, the rugged, casual, jocklike air and he’d have it all. Nothing to it.
He wanted to slash his wrists.
And, when his photography skills have been discovered, that moment at the Sugar Bowl (the town’s teen hangout) when Corky and Ro-Anne recruit him to their inner circle, and Corky reveals his plan about the yearbook to the dazzled, lonely boy:
”I want to be all over that yearbook, kid. Cover to cover! I want my kids to look through it someday and see what a hot shot their old man was.” Ro-Anne coughed into her buttermilk. “And what a beauty Ro-Anne was,” Corky was quick to add.
It is that meeting that sets everything in motion to the inevitable tragedy.
I never forgot this book; I reread it I don’t know how many times. My worn and battered copy was lost to the ages years ago.
I remembered it again recently, and did a google search. I was able to order an old, used copy. I discovered that David Marlow wrote a few other books, became a bodybuilder, and now lives in Palm Springs with his long time partner. My used copy arrived this week, and with some trepidation, I reread it this morning.
It still holds up, after all this time. It is just as painful to read and experience as it was that first time over thirty years ago, and it resonated just as strongly as it did back then. But in all my prior readings of it, I always had a sense that Guy’s feelings for Corky were an anomaly, and after the events of this book he went on to marry and have kids and all of that.
But at the reunion, there is this exchange between him and Amy, that I either never caught (or understood) in any previous reading, as they dance at the reunion:
She giggled and looked at him. “And what about you, tall stranger? What’s going on with your life?”
Guy shrugged. “Not much.”
“No romantic interest?”
“Naw. I’ve got plenty of time for that once I sort out the rest of me.”
She looked at him with affection. “Still confused?”
Trust Aunt Amy to get right to the bottom of things. Guy hugged her tighter. “Let’s just dance, okay? I didn’t come here to be analyzed.”
“Right you are!”
“I can tell you one thing.”
“I do what I want nowadays.”
“Yeah. I guess I have you to thank for making me stop living for the neighbors.”
—Greg Herren is the author of numerous novels including the Scotty Bradley mysteries, the Chanse MacLeod mysteries and the smoking hot erotic novel, Every Frat Boy Wants It under the pseudonym, Todd Gregory. Follow him @ScottyNola and Facebook.