I Love You, Beth Cooper
by Larry Doyle
Ecco, 256 pp., $19.95
Larry Doyle is a sit-down comic, a rather successful one. He writes funny stuff for the New Yorker's Shouts and Murmurs, a section that, to be honest, is not always funny. He was a writer and producer for three seasons of The Simpsons, which of course has been funny with incredible frequency over the years, and he's worked on a number of other shows and movies--more funny than not, to my knowledge. And now he's written a novel.
These days, a novel is what you write when you don't already have Simpsons writing credits on your CV. It's not as if Doyle deserves a medal--especially since, from his acknowledgments, it sounds like he knocked the thing out in a couple of months--but still, his authoring an actual book speaks well of him.
Unless I Love You, Beth Cooper turns out to be just another way to get a movie project started. Did you ever notice how nothing quite irks book reviewers like the possibility that the novel they're being paid less than the hourly minimum to read and review is a mere prelude to a lucrative development deal?
To banish such thoughts, Doyle could have written a novel so uncinematic, so internal in its concerns, so much like the plotless dramas of MFA graduates that no one would ever think to make a movie of it. Much more sensibly, he has written a novel of updated stock characters and larger-than-life silly events, which he sets amidst the new Bobo suburbia. The style is comedy in bold letters, matched by a playful font and a drawing by the cartoonist Evan Dorkin at the beginning of each chapter. Doyle takes his laughs when he can get them, which is pretty often, and his book has one major virtue: The story's action drives with beguiling speed to its conclusion. The reader never yawns waiting for something to happen.
The words "I love you, Beth Cooper" are spoken by the book's hero, debate team captain and class valedictorian Denis Cooverman, in his graduation speech, as he urges his classmates to seize this last opportunity to say what they've really been thinking the last four years. Telling Beth Cooper he loves her is Denis's way of following his own advice. He also hopes it will lead to something. But until this moment, Beth Cooper, captain of the cheerleading squad, has been only vaguely conscious of Denis Cooverman's existence. And yet, she is flattered, and so she deigns to speak afterwards to Denis, who invites her to his house for a party.
The rest of the story is a slapstick romp through the familiar teenage wasteland of socially awkward parties, reckless behavior, and lax parental supervision. There is one line of dialogue so dirty that were its meaning spelled out, it would not have gotten past even the copy editors at Hustler: A girl uses a strange word connoting a bizarre sexual act, then tells a nonplussed bystander to Google it. Unfortunately, I did.
What Doyle does best is depict the inner world of a cartoonishly nerdy nerd whose little nerd head is filled with hyperbolically nerdy thoughts. When Beth Cooper actually shows up at Denis's house for the party, he is momentarily paralyzed: "Adrenaline, epinephrine, seratonin, corticosterone, testosterone and several other exotic hormones squirted from various glands or were being synthesized like crazy throughout his body, in far beyond prescription strengths, and so all non-essential functions such as thinking had shut down." It's not unlike Lisa Simpson in her own nerd mode (as opposed to her progressive lib or dutiful-sibling mode).
The other characters, excepting Beth Cooper herself, seem little better than their average-quality teen movie counterparts, whom they are intended to upstage. If your expectations are set at She's All That or even American Pie (with which it shares a certain scatological tendency), you'll be surprised by what Doyle has captured--less so if your expectations are set at, say, Clueless or Ten Things I Hate About You.
The blurbs make I Love You, Beth Cooper sound like this era's most perfect representation of the American teenager. But really, it is more a demonstration of the power of good comic writing (which here comes down to having lots of funny and obvious joke lines) than a demonstration of the author's literary gifts or his powers of seeing into the heart of a nerd or a cheerleading captain.
"Knowing and wise," says one of Doyle's blurb friends on the back cover. But that is exactly what the book is not. At times it seems to be barely a novel at all: more like a comic book with fewer pictures.
There's nothing novel in Doyle's chosen milieu of babes and geeks and muscleheads and the cruel caste system of the American high school or the device of this social hierarchy being temporarily upended by the events of one unforgettable night. Nor are many of Doyle's jokes likely to be around for the ages. In fact, the book's humor so often depends on the reader recognizing brand names and evanescent movie lines that many of its jokes may be dated before I Love You, Beth Cooper: The Movie can even go into production. But the whole thing charges forward with such zip that you forgive it its sins and enjoy the ride, sometimes laughing really hard.
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.