For the 100th year anniversary of Rolling The R’s I wanted to talk about my “bestest bestest” part, “F For Book Report,” the part I’ve taught over a dozen times in classes at UCSC.
“F For Book Report” begins with the teacher’s directions to the students about how to write a book report, which includes a list of traditional questions about theme, character, and conflict, and ends with an exhortation in caps: “NO PIDGIN-ENGLISH ALLOWED.”
The author of the report, Katherine Katrina-Trina Cruz, has chosen to write on Judy Blume’s Forever. Forever defined the 80s generation, at least for girls. In middle school many of us first read about masturbation and menstruation in Judy Blume. Then Forever blew our minds in high school. It’s a frank love story in which the teenage girl has sex and never regrets it. So, Forever: iconic book, but iconic middle class white girl book, and Katherine Katrina-Trina Cruz is about to appropriate it to tell her own story.
Katherine starts out following the directions: she gives a “concise summation” of the book in unemotional, standard English. But by the second paragraph her energetic voice begins to break through the form and the language: “I feel like I know (the main character) so well, even though I one local and she live all the way east coast side.” By the third paragraph of her book report, Katherine has burst into outrageously honest wisdom: “I feel kind of sorry for Sybil cuz all she do is spread spread spread…Sybil, she not too smart. That’s why she not the main character.”
Even though she thinks Forever is one of the “bestest bestest” books she’s ever read, Katherine has some criticism. She thinks the fact that the male main character names his penis Ralph is “unbelievable.” “I swear only haole guys would name their botos Ralph. Only haole guys would give their botos names period…When Erwin and I make love…I talking about tongue-kissing, ball-tickling, ear-licking, everything. None of this Ralph shit.” Take that, Judy Blume! Can you hear the sly joy behind the voice? Like Mark Twain or George Saunders, you can tell Zack Linmark is always having a party on the page.
Towards the end of the report, Katherine suddenly directly addresses her teacher: “I recommend this book especially for you, Mrs. Takemoto, cuz you might learn a thing or two about love and the painful truth that nothing last forever, not even love.” She goes on to reveal that her mother is sleeping with Mrs. Takemoto’s husband. Her advice: “tell him to fuck off…(because), like I said before, love don’t last forever…”
It appears here that Linmark is giving the finger to traditional literary form and content, and he is, but he also maintains extremely tight control over form, voice, and theme. A fabulous irony is that, although we know from the title that Katherine has already gotten an F for this report, she’s actually followed the teacher’s directions with unconventional brilliance. She’s answered all her teacher’s “universal” questions: is there a moral? Would you recommend the book? Does the main character get what she wants? This tricky balance is at the center of the whole of Rolling the R’s. Linmark is all rule breaker and all classic rigor, he’s Peter Pan and he’s Baryshnikov, and like both, he makes flying look easy.