Blau gives up heart to make ’80s-era thriller, ends up with A-Team retread
Published: May 29, 2013
The Wonder Bread Summer
Jessica Anya Blau
The radio show Sound Opinions has an occasional feature called “Off the Rails,” where the hosts try to figure out just what happened to a talented artist who suddenly veered in some weird direction. I’m afraid this is going to be the literary equivalent of such a dissection, because it is hard to imagine what Hopkins and Goucher writing prof Jessica Anya Blau—whose previous books The Summer of Naked Swim Parties and Drinking Closer to Home were both critical and popular successes—was thinking when she wrote a book as hackneyed and downright bad as The Wonder Bread Summer .
My best guess is that she was trying to write an Elmore Leonard-style book that Hollywood might want to buy and make into some kind of Tarantino-ish movie. Except that (and maybe it’s fitting with the 1980s California setting) Tarantino gets hijacked by The A-Team, so no matter how much drugs are involved or how many guns are pulled, we know that no one will ever really be in danger and that everyone will be all right. There is nothing at all at stake in this book.
In the strong opening scene, Blau has not yet abandoned every vestige of the quirky, slightly hyperbolic realism she did so well in Drinking Closer to Home, and so there is some genuine creepiness as her straight-laced hero, Allie, finds herself doing coke in the dressing room of the shop where she works with her boss, who, as it turns out, really just wants her to lift up her shirt so he can jerk off. Allie is broke, and he tells her he won’t pay her unless she takes off her shirt. She’s always been a “good girl” and never done drugs but she needs the money to pay her tuition at Berkeley and she is high, and he convinces her that her “party girl” best friend Beth took off her clothes and he gives her some acid-y, mushroom-y coke (what?! Is there such a thing?) and becomes even more threatening and intimidating.
It’s a strong opening gambit and there are all sorts of places it could go, but then Allie decides to run off with a Wonder Bread bag full of pure, uncut coke, taking the book off the rails and down the rabbit hole (there is a recurring Alice in Wonderland theme). But there are hints of the book’s stubborn refusal of realism even in the opening scene.
Allie isn’t so much a person as a racial amalgamation, and everyone mentions it, all the time. As he strokes his dick, her drug-dealing boss, Jonas, says, “I can tell you’ve got black in you. . . And some Chinese too!” Allie doesn’t manage to meet anyone with whom she doesn’t have this conversation, including the 1980s rock star Billy Idol, who says “You’re a fuckin’ bloody ’malgamation of the whole fuckin’ world, aren’t you?” just before they sleep together.
The Chinese part of this equation is even more disastrous for the book than Blau’s decision to make Allie some kind melting-pot symbol. Allie is always thinking about her Chinese grandmother, Wai Po, who apparently only spoke in all-caps fortune-cookie speak: “half lie will ruin whole reputation”; “a child mind is like piece of paper where everyone leave mark. you don’t want prossy-tute leaving mark on you”; “what is told into the ear of man is heard a hundred miles away.”
These are just a few of the dozens of fortune-cookie sayings Blau sprinkles throughout the book. But apparently it wasn’t enough to create the full-on movie version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ Mickey Rooney Asian stereotype. She also included a list of other favorite “Chinese Proverbs” in an appendix that pulls from such reputable sources as quotationspage.com/quotes/Chinese_Proverb.
The larger problem is that the highly unreal stereotype Wai Po is not actually less real than anyone else. There is not a living, breathing, conflicted character in the book. After Allie steals the coke, she also takes her friend’s car and drives to L.A., where she goes to see her high school pal, gets drunk, and meets a paraplegic porn producer with a heart of gold. Even though she shoves a handful of blow into his face and he has a heart attack, his Hispanic employee with a heart of gold who has a wife with a heart of gold who always cooks tamales gathers a crew to help her with the stolen coke problem. But, these characters are all little more than stereotypes and plot-devices.
Allie’s father is a black restaurateur who has always been too hard-working to be demonstrative of his love (but we know he is good-hearted and kind, even when she doesn’t); her mother is a flaky half-Chinese, half-Jewish woman who ran off to be the “tambourine girl” in the terribly named Mighty Zomboni, whose lead singer, Jet, is stupid, selfish, and ill-endowed (unlike Billy Idol, who, we learn, has a lot of girth).
Too much plot is like too much coke: You can’t think beyond the next line. So Blau constantly sums everything up with dreadful dialogue: “‘Allie,’ Jorge said, ‘We have much to do. We must replace the glass on the car, check on your father, return the cocaine to Jonas, free Beth from Rosie, and get you back in school unharmed.”
Just when things seem to be in order, some other ridiculous event occurs—a condor crashes through the window, for instance, and gives Allie a knot on her head. (At least the giant bump on Allie’s head gives people who have already discussed her race something else to talk about.) Several different people are kidnapped by the team of good guys Allie assembles, and because her good guys are tough but honorable, we know that no one will be accidentally shot; no one will call the cops; no will end up with anything worse than a scratch—even the porn producer’s heart attack is seen as a positive event that will help keep him away from the toot.
It is not that this book needs to be a moralizing tale about the dangers of drugs—the lack of moralizing about cocaine is rather refreshing—but rather, as in the case with Blau’s previous books, we need to be able to treat the situations that the characters are in seriously enough to care about their outcomes. But somehow Blau seems to have traded in her heart for some misguided idea about what might make a good thriller. (It also seems like Blau got some bad advice to start a “Summer” franchise, naming this book, like The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, about the beachgoing season). But though this book requires little effort and reads quickly, it is ultimately like the PG-13 movie that might make your mom feel risque. It pretends at danger, but the risk is nothing but pretense. As old Chinese Proverb say: when making ’80s movie-book, must think beyond a-team.
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