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Hollywood has already gobbled up the rights to Wonderland: A Year in the Life of an American High School, and author Michael Bamberger can thank a blond, Corvette-driving hottie nicknamed Jeans for that profitable bit of business. Senior Alyssa Bergman is pretty in denim, an unattainable, aloof fantasy girl for every pimply misfit at Pennsbury High, a thousands-strong school serving the sprawling middle-class ’burbs of Pennsylvania’s Lower Bucks County, just outside Philadelphia. Flipping her hair, working her curves, and dating men well out of their awkward teens, Alyssa is every bit the female version of Sixteen Candles dreamboat Jake Ryan—or at least that’s the way Bamberger sketches his story’s vivacious sex object. Look for Elisha Cuthbert to pull on the Levi’s.
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A senior writer at Sports Illustrated, Bamberger is all about slick readability, and indeed Wonderland is sweet, funny, and fast—everything that a real high school is usually not, and everything that John Hughes’ teen-flick high schools always were. Bamberger spent a year at Pennsbury, tagging along to classes, family dinners, and the occasional road trip, so his subjects and their predicaments are authentic—Alyssa, for instance, has overbearing-daddy issues. But the author apparently wasn’t interested in the kind of warts-and-all immersion journalism that exposes the nasty complexities of the true teen experience. Wonderland plays more like The Real World, where conveniently capsulated lives are edited for maximum entertainment. Although one of the kids is killed in an auto accident, and a couple of senior sweethearts become unprepared parents, Bamberger is far more interested in whether a fast-talking, overachieving nerd—who is also comically pursuing Jeans—can get Dave Matthews–wannabe John Mayer, whose “Your Body Is a Wonderland” is a hit at the time, to play the prom.
Ah, yes: the make-or-break big dance. Pennsbury’s prom is an elaborate, if low-budget, affair, a gonzo event to which local news cameras and folks from 10 towns over flock to see the decked-out kids show up “by helicopter or pogo stick or in the back of a brightly painted cement mixer.” (For this year’s “Hollywood Nights”–themed extravaganza, handicapped AV geek Harry Stymiest wants to rent Marty McFly’s Back to the Future DeLorean.) Teachers take the occasion—still proudly held not in a nearby Hilton but in the school’s gymnasium—just as seriously as the kids, and the bickering among grown-ups can get nasty. Bamberger uses the prom to drive his narrative, following his cast of cute, nonthreatening, mostly white kids as they prepare over the course of the year for what they seem to believe is the most important night of their lives. That the traditional dance is a time when teens can pretend to be someone else, somewhere else, only adds to the book’s MTV-magical feel.
Bamberger has all his teen-flick stereotypes in place. If Jeans is the prom-queen looker, Bobby Speer is the sensitive senior quarterback, a misunderstood guy who can have any prom date he wants but spends most of his time worrying about his kid brother Danny, born with spina bifida. Bobby is also saddled with a stepfather who is determined to see him throw bombs at an NCAA powerhouse; Bobby, on the other hand, isn’t so sure he wants to leave home. Lindsey “Peanutface” Milroy has a nice personality and killer field-hockey skills, but recurring dizzy spells—which she keeps secret and Bamberger keeps teasing—will eventually threaten her chance at an athletic scholarship. Rob Stephens and Stephanie Coyle, everyone’s favorite couple, have discovered a new after-school activity—“It was thrilling, it was adult, it belonged to them”—but when Stephanie discovers she’s pregnant, the young lovers will become little more than a sex-ed cautionary tale. And goody-goody Mike Kosmin’s desire to be cool will lead to a tragic turn of events.
Junior-class president Bob Costa, a go-getter who hands out his own business cards and boasts of his “Pennsbury Pride, a term he used without irony,” is the book’s most annoying player. Perhaps because he can relate to him—Costa covers Philadelphia Eagles football games for the school TV station and at one point has the balls to ask a bad-boy defensive end, “[D]o you think you’re like Tony Soprano?”—or perhaps because he knows the kid is so unbelievably punchable, Bamberger gives Bob the largest chunk of the action, watching the kid badger John Mayer’s publicist and pompously blast the pop star when he shows no interest in playing the prom. The author also delights in showing every cringeworthy move as Bob futilely goes after way-out-of-his-league Alyssa, at one point cockily sending her a note “in the style of e.e. cummings”:
what’s up? the prom is
coming soon, and i
hear that you may be free.
it would be cool. let’s
As the lives of his subjects intertwine, and the thread of the narrative winds inexorably toward the prom, Bamberger keeps his content curiously PG, hinting at the kids’ drinking, drugging, and humping but never showing it. The author was in his early 40s when he hung out at Pennsbury, and unlike young Cameron Crowe’s undercover work at Ridgemont High, his access apparently didn’t include wild parties and innermost secrets. For that reason, Wonderland often feels too safe, too tidy. When Bamberger makes brief mention of a delinquent’s supposed canoodling with a young teacher, you wish he’d look deeper into that alleged bit of tawdriness instead of beelining back to Bob’s weaselly pursuits.
For the most part, the author wisely keeps his own first-person musings out of the narrative, although he can’t resist tracking down his prom date from 20-some years ago. She’s doing fine, it turns out, and so is he—just another happy ending in a book that’s full of them. At one point, Bamberger says of Mike Kosmin’s stepdad that “the memories of what it was to be young and inept and excited had overwhelmed him for a moment.” The same can be said about the author, who seems to have been intent on writing about a place that didn’t really exist. Ultimately, Wonderland is about the high school that we all wanted to go to—but that only Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall ever had the chance to attend. CP