by Jerry Sander
Published by The Way It Works Press
302 pages, 2005
Buy it online
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
The place: Hadleyville Falls High, somewhere in the United States, possibly the author's own New York. The time is the present and it's frightening. Of his first novel Sanders writes: "I hope you find it to be not-the-usual fare." He will be pleased; I didn't. He also points out that his accompanying press release has no reference to those "uplifting", "inspirational" feel-good Kodak moments of living.
So I was well warned. This is a book about the seamy side of school. Way seamy.
Because the novel primarily deals with a grade nine class, you might think it was written for this age. I don't believe, however, I'd be able to pass this book on to any 14 year-old I know. I asked Sanders who he sees as his readership: "For starters, the intended readership is 'age 16 and up.' It is not a classic Young Adult title, then, but is for Adults .... Still, Permission Slips will resonate with those who are already past the beginning point of high schools..."
But if the ideal target readership is the older teenager, what 17 or 18 year old is going to pick up a book that has on its back cover, "In Hadleyville Falls High School, mindless conformity and loneliness gather like a toxic cloud around adults and teens alike. Maybe ninth-grader Alison Gepner just hasn't gotten the message."
How do you reconcile the very mature content of the book with the age of the characters? There are adults in the book, of course. The counselor, the principal, teachers and parents, but they definitely take a seat in the back row.
Sanders is a high school student assistance counselor, like one of the protagonists, Alan. For 19 years he's been situated with his office right off the hallway and his door open. It shows. He has the speech, the rhythm and the jargon of teenagers absolutely right. I've seldom read such verbal spot-on accuracy.
What do they talk about? Dieting, clothes, where they can score, who's a slut, who the police picked up and who totaled whose car. One of the students, who rarely comes to school, has already stuck his knife deep in the chest of a dealer who was ripping him off and has fathered a child on his girlfriend. He replies to a teacher:
When you are a leader, not everything you do has to be right. It just has to be respected. That was the whole reason for the war in Iraq, the one that just happened, right?
Ergo the students mirror the adults; youth culture parallels politics. Scary.
The prime plot is described as good girl, Alison Gepner, trying on love with the attractive new guy in school, Elijah and the fledgling relationship becoming threatened by a jealous troublemaker, Claire, who wants him for herself. This, however, feels like an add-on to the story, which really has for its plot a much wider spectrum of teen and adult activity. Claire is never a threat, her plots fizzle quickly, and therefore there is no conflict or tension in this angle, which doesn't even surface until nearly the end of the book. There is, however, plenty of uncontrived conflict at the core of the book, arising out of the melange of characters as they mill around at school and out of it, making huge messes of their lives and doing whatever it takes to be seen as "cool."
Another element of plot that seemed unnecessary to me is when the principal, Peter, tries to threaten and blackmail three students and it backfires. Up until now we can believe in Peter as simply another ineffectual administrator, not really understanding kids or caring to, and simply putting in his time. This is a believable character and the inertia he's mired in is equally believable. We understand his dilemma when he's torn as to whether to report the nude photos of one of the students that have shown up in his favorite girlie magazine. On the one hand, does he want people to know he reads this stuff? On the other, he knows it needs to be reported. He does the right thing; he takes the photos in to school to do something about them, and then not surprisingly they get stolen from his desk and posted around the school.
Why would he now try to blackmail the louts who did this and try to force them to say they brought the photos to school? His motive in bringing them in was a good one, and that information would have gotten out soon in any case. Both the character and motivation seem untrue at this point.
Nevertheless, in spite of characterization and plot occasionally feeling off kilter, Permission Slips is worth a read for a look at what is probably a very true picture of a big city American high school. | November 2005
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.