Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! by M.E. Kerr

For a minute there, I thought I was in for a pretty generic book. We had a male narrator (not so striking in a 1972 book) living in New York (this is pretty standard in 70s YA), where he hangs out in libraries (natch), has a parent who's a writer (as most kids in YA of the day seem to) and there's a cat involved.  1972, though, is early enough that none of this would have been exactly cliche, and the story built around this kid is utterly unique.

Well, maybe not utterly. In Bleak House there's a funny subplot in which Mrs. Jellyby is so busy writing letters and raising funds for her favorite charity (a proposition to send poor Londoners to Borrioboola-ga to cultivate the coffee berry) that she doesn't notice how screwed up her family is. This is the part of this plot that was made into an after-school special in 1979.

The book is a year in the life of Tucker, a recent transplant from Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights (he's always supposed to specify "Brooklyn Heights," not "Brooklyn," which was not cool in 1972). His father just quit a job in fundraising to start a health food store with his wife's brother, an actor who goes by Jingle and is about as reliable as my old station wagon. His mother works writing silly stories for "True Confession" type magazines.

Tucker meets "Dinky" Hocker, an overweight (but not smack-shooting) girl down the street, when she adopts his cat, Nader (named for Ralph). Also at Dinky's house are her cousin, Natalia, who is in and out of mental health facilities (her dad killed himself) and Marcus, a junkie - her mother, Mrs. Hocker, is very much involved in drug rehabilitation programs. So much so that she doesn't seem to notice Dinky's chronic over-eating.

Dinky is mean-spirited and unpleasant for much of the book, coming out of her shell briefly when she starts dating P. John Knight, another son of an ultra-liberal who has rebelled by becoming an ultra-conservative. He looks for excuses to work Joe McCarthy ("one of my heroes") into conversations, sympathizes with Hitler, who he figures at least wasn't some wussy communist of socialist (though somehow modern conservatives have decided that Hitler WAS one of those). Dinky's parents don't like him much at all. No one does, really. For a minute I thought the guy was a little over-the-top as a character, but then I realized that I knew plenty of people who were just like him.

Through the course of a school year or so, Tucker navigates the beginnings of a relationship with Natalia, the rise and fall of his dad and uncle's plans for a health food store, and the endless dramas connected to Dinky and her parents.There were moments early on when I thought this was going to be a standard 70s setup in reverse: you see a lot of books about liberal kids standing up to their conservative parents, and this looked like it was going to be about the kids smacking some sense into the ultra-liberal parents. And it almost was, at times - not that it's actually full of conservative talking points (the overall point of view is, I think, left of center), but, hey, we all know liberals like Mrs. Hocker, right? Like the types who freak out if you say "snowman" instead of "snow person" (P. John is one of these by the end of the book - his viewpoint does a 180 when he goes off to boarding school, but he's still kind of an asshole). Every character is still recognizable today, really, and the shy, stumbling kids all seem remarkably normal (even the ones who are in and out of mental health facilities). Tucker hangs out in libraries, but he's not exactly a bookworm. He doesn't read books all the way through very often, and hangs out in libraries largely for the people-watching, musing at one point that he'll probably be a librarian someday because people in libraries always look really nervous, so no one will notice if he's nervous on the job. I loved that.

Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! was hugely successful in the 1970s - the copy I have is a from the 9th printing. It even inspired After School Special on TV, though the special moved things to LA, dropped the politics, and dropped Tucker, his family, and Natalia to focus entirely on Dinky.  Perhaps it was the special that killed the book - it seems to have fallen off the radar in the 80s, and, as successful as it was, I had never even heard of it until last week.

But it holds up remarkably well. If anything "dates" it at all, it's that Tucker and co are out wandering the streets unsupervised all the time, and discussing now-archaic library practices like the "pay duplicate" section where you pay a nickel a day to check something out (do they still do that anywhere?). The pop culture references are really sort of ahead of their time - the kids are into Vonnegut, Salinger, and the Little Prince (kids who hang out in libraries still read those), and at one point, while discussing his relationship with Natalia with his mother, Tucker sums it up with a Beatles line: "You ask me if my love will grow, I don't know, I don't know." The narrator refers to this as a line from a "Beatles Classic."  This was 1972 - that song wasn't even three years old then, and probably wasn't even two when the manuscript was written. M.E. Kerr (who is really Marijane Meaker, a pioneer of LGBT fiction) had a sharp eye. The two families at the heart of the book become a sort of metaphor for society at large, but only in a subtle way. There's no point at which Kerr tries to drive home the lesson or antyhing, as Louise Fitzhugh did on Nobody's Family Is Going to Change in the ending scene in which a character calls up another to explain the lesson ("Nobody's family is going to change - we have to change.") (I should re-read that one).

On the surface, there's nothing about this that makes it seem like it would fit into the market today - a male narrator makes it hard enough, and then it's in third person, past tense, rather than the now-standard first person present. That said, it still felt very contemporary and modern to me throughout; at times I almost wanted to compare it to Dyan Sheldon's Planet Janet. Unlike a lot of 70s books, there's not a lot of discussion of sexuality or bodily functions that one would have a harder time getting away with now - just a few sort of vague references, and a fun discussion about whether "ass" is an improper word.

This is a book that deserves to be rediscovered, and a style that deserves to re-emerge. I think it's the sort that'll seem better every time I re-read it. It's not the surprise that Don't Play Dead Until You Have To was for me, but as an example of the "year in the life of a 1970s kid who lives in New York, has a cat, and has a writer for a parent" genre, it's a real standout. Unlike practically every other book on this site, you can get it on kindle. 

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