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Lake Effect
Rich Cohen
Alfred A. Knopf
224 pp.

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Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer
Henry Petroski
Alfred A. Knopf
384 pp.

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This Boy's Life
Rich Cohen's Lake Effect & Henry Petroski's Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer

Lately, the news from the adolescent front has been not so good. Once we were told--in contradiction to actual experience--that these were the best years of our lives (which seemed to suggest, if you thought about it, that pimples and PE class were as good as it would get, and it was all downhill from eighteen). At some point between Gidget and Ghost World, however, we came to understand that adolescence is in fact a hostile terrain, these days littered with the mounting casualties of drugs, alcohol, sex, depression, school shootings, Internet predators, broken families, suicide, eating disorders, obesity, backbreaking homework loads, high-stakes testing, brutal peer pressure and too-indulgent parents. Like, nihilistic despair, you know, dude?

But now, just as we've gotten comfortable with the Survivor version of the teenage years, along come two memoirs of adolescence in which authors Rich Cohen and Henry Petroski look back not in anguish, dysfunction, and bitterness, but in fond and nostalgic reminiscence. What, didn't they get the word from the writers' union?

Cohen's book, Lake Effect, is set in mid-1980s Chicago suburbia, while Petroski's, Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer, is set in mid-1950s New York suburbia. But they recall together a contented, lingering interlude between childhood and grownup responsibility, when all that really mattered was the moment at hand, and the future was an unwritten story with everything still possible.

Henry Petroski's book begins with his family's move, on Petroski's twelfth birthday, from Brooklyn to Queens. It is the 1950s of big cars and brisk prosperity, when kids pedaled to the corner candy store for egg creams. Henry gets a bike for his birthday, takes on a paper route, hangs out with a few pals, sculpts his hair into a DA, engages in occasional acts of petty vandalism and other youthful indiscretions, attends a Catholic boys' high school and thinks vaguely of girls. And there you have the gist of the narrative trajectory of Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer. Which is not at all to say that the book is a dull, or even a slow read, though if you want lightning pacing and edge-of-the-seat excitement, you would probably do best to look elsewhere. As befits its subtitle, Petroski's book is a series of measured meditations on such matters as building a new bike, unwrapping a pack of illicit smokes, and most importantly, folding newspapers and flipping them onto front stoops from a moving bicycle.

The author of books such as The Pencil and The Evolution of Useful Things, Petroski has a gift for rendering the ordinary in unexpectedly intriguing detail. Very large sections of Paperboy are devoted to the finer points of newspaper delivery, such as the range of techniques evolved to accommodate thick papers, thin papers, and Sunday papers with their stack of supplements. It's the sort of matter you might never otherwise have given a second thought to, like the million other components of everyday living, but once you've learned about it, you can't imagine why you never wondered about it before.

With Paperboy, Petroski suggests that long before he even knew what an engineer was, he was examining the world through an engineer's eyes. He was seeking out patterns, structures, organizing principles, from watching how people stood or sat or fidgeted at Sunday Mass, to truing the spokes on his bicycle, to examining the ways that commuters folded their newspapers to read while standing on crowded buses.

Even human behavior is so analyzed. There is a bizarre sequence in which Petroski's freshman year algebra teacher begins, for no apparent reason, to call Petroski "Herman Peterson," and then determinedly punishes Petroski for refusing to respond to the name. This goes on for an entire school year. One might expect Petroski to bridle still at this extended subjection to strangely sadistic petty autocracy and arbitrary injustice, but even this he seems to regard instead as an intriguing conundrum, a difficult equation set for him that nearly a half-century later he is still trying to puzzle out. He brings the same curiosity to analyzing his own behavior, wondering why he and his friends, all "nice" boys, were drawn on occasion, and with little thought, to small crimes like breaking the bulb on the corner street lamp or contriving to blow the suspension on a city bus in order to have an excuse to be late for school.

That's about as confessional as ...Confessions of a Future Engineer gets. This is a quiet book, a soothing antidote to anxious times.

Rich Cohen's Lake Effect updates boyish pleasures for the 1980s--there's considerably more drinking, drugs and sex--and yet there is a strangely innocent, wistful feel to this book whose subject, as Cohen writes, is "a certain season and the thrill of a certain kind of friendship and what happens to such friendships when the afternoon runs into evening."

Cohen is a middle-of-the-heap kid in a huge suburban high school when he is introduced to the book's central character, Jamie Drew, known universally, to students and teachers alike, as "Drew-licious." Drew, writes Cohen "was the true hero of my youth, the most vivid presence, not only of my childhood but also for kids up and down the North Shore. Words he said, gestures he crafted, swept our school like a craze....He was quick and dashing and honestly the smartest person I have ever known...." Drew is good-looking, imaginative, adventuresome and independent, and he harbors a personal tragedy that only adds to his mythology. Jamie Drew is the romantic center of the story, the light that makes every experience burn brighter and richer.

Cohen and Drew hang out with their friends Joe Pistone, "who wished he had been a teenager in the fifties, drove a '61 Pontiac GTO, and dated girls in polka dots" and Ronnie Flowers, a forever morphing identity in human form, who goes from picked-on fat kid to hulking weight-lifter to "groovy, drugged-out stoner," to money guy in the city over the course of the book. They go to parties. They stay out all night on the beach. They make an occasional trip to Chicago. Summer drifts into fall into winter into spring into summer again.

Lake Effect is about the friendship of young men when girls are desired but still unfathomable objects, about bonds forged in cheap beer and borrowed cars and aimless adventures and talk late into the night, when it all feels important and exciting in some way you can't quite define and you can't imagine ever wanting any of it to change. And then it all changes, until there's nothing left of it but old stories you can't quite explain to your wife and in-jokes you no longer understand scrawled in your high school yearbook.

As with Paperboy, nothing much at all really happens in Lake Effect, but it is the strength of Cohen's writing to make this ordinariness resonate. Lake Effect is a lyrical book, dreamy, wistful, like the long, lazy afternoons at the very end of summer.

—Reviewed by Charlie Onion

Posted June 1, 2002



Just as we've gotten comfortable with the Survivor version of the teenage years, along come two memoirs of adolescence in which authors Rich Cohen and Henry Petroski look back not in anguish, dysfunction, and bitterness, but in fond and nostalgic reminiscence.



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