How I Paid for College is one of my top 5 funniest books. (Not sure what the others are, honestly. Gordon Korman’s Son of Interflux and I Want to Go Home! are in there, for sure.) It is my standard Beach Reading Recommendation, and if I haven’t pushed it on you, consider it done. The premise: Edward is simply dying to go to Juilliard, so he and his wacky band of misfit theater buddies contrive to extort the money from his tightfisted dad, who wants Edward to go to business school instead. This involves a blackmail, priest impersonation, and other ludicrously elaborate set-ups. Plus lots of sex. As Edward puts it, “Women are my second-favorite people to have sex with.”
The sequel takes place over a year later, in 1986. Edward has been kicked out for being “too jazz hands for Juilliard.” To avoid telling his dad, he supports himself as a “party motivator,” getting bratty kids to dance at bar mitzvahs and schmoozing with businessmen at corporate events… which is how he gets mixed up with an insider trading scheme. The old cast of How I Paid for College, plus a couple of new friends, concocts yet more madcap schemes to keep Edward out of federal pound-you-in-the-ass prison.
Slightly Spoilery Pondering:
Theater People isn’t quite as hilarious as College, maybe only because I knew what to expect (more or less). But it is more touching. I loved the freewheeling sexuality of College, that the book forced no one to make any pesky definitions. But by the mid-80s, being a gay man in New York isn’t a lighthearted romp. Edward is terrified, so he futilely chases straight dudes and scorns guys who clearly identify as gay.
One of the climaxes (heh) of the book comes (har) when Edward’s gay friend convinces him to relax and enjoy himself: “I’ve got two words for you. Con. Dom.” With his initiation into the gay sex he’d wanted to be having all along, he gains the courage to stop hiding from AIDS and start fighting it. He doesn’t just want to be Edward Zanni, goofball and unwitting white-collar criminal; he wants to own his sexuality and stand for something:
“I guess what I’m trying to say is that if all the world’s a stage, I want to play my part, even if it’s in a shiny shirt and tight pants. Years from now, when someone says to me, ‘What did you do in the fight against AIDS?’ I don’t want to answer, ‘I got a cheap apartment.’”
So in that way, it becomes a pretty great gay coming-of-age novel (without deciding bi people don’t actually exist). And that is a thing the world needs more of.