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Teen Slate

Larry Doyle Tackles High School In His Ribald First Novel

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By John Barry | Posted 6/6/2007

You can't read I Love You, Beth Cooper without wondering what author Larry Doyle really looks like. The only clue he gives is a photo from his 1975 high-school yearbook: a dark-haired, somewhat wary figure with a comb-over haircut that is never going to be cool.

The contemporary version, when he finally makes his appearance at a Charles Village Starbucks, could be anybody's favorite uncle. He's compact, white-haired, and unthreatening for someone whose novel could have been written by a speed freak. Then the resemblance to the yearbook photo becomes more apparent. Even at 48, he's got the uneasy energy of someone who has always been a little too smart for his own good.

I Love You, Beth Cooper may confirm that. It could be a nightmare for marketers in today's genre-driven market. It's a little too edgy to fit into the young-adult fiction niche. The cover--a cartoon of a pimply, sweating teenager--doesn't exactly reach out to the over-40 crowd. This full-tilt, cannily plotted novel may actually send teenage guys to the bookstore, but only because their parents probably won't want them to read it--at least not until they graduate from high school.

Doyle is ready to defy the labelers. As an ex-writer for The Simpsons and Beavis and Butthead, ex-editor at Spy magazine, and an occasional contributor to The New Yorker, Doyle is in the business of making 17-year olds--and anyone else who wants to--laugh. If anyone can pave the way for a male version of chick lit, it's Doyle. If not, he doesn't appear to be losing any sleep over the prospect.

Denis Cooverman, his anti-hero, loses a good deal of sleep. Denis is a nerdy 17-year-old debate-team captain who winds up getting way more than he bargained for after declaring his love for his high school's head cheerleader. The closest thing he has to a friend in this cruel world is Rich, a cinephile who is desperately trying to persuade himself that he's not gay. The woman Denis loves is the girlfriend of a Marine on furlough from Iraq. Quite simply, the cards are stacked against him.

"It's longer than The Graduate," Doyle says when asked how he managed to cram all this into 272 large-print pages, complete with frequent illustrations. "You wouldn't want anything like this to drag on."

If anything, he's pretty clear on what his writing isn't trying to do. Don't look for any stream of consciousness or warmed-over confessionals. And don't look for spiritual or emotional guidance. "I didn't want it to be one of those things where we have to go through his mind," Doyle says. "You want to keep the action moving in a story like that--lots of dialogue, a lot of things happening, not go too long without something really fun happening."

He answers a few obligatory questions in a quick series. Is Denis based on your own high-school experience? Sort of, but not quite. Do you want your 8-year-old son to read it? Not at the moment. Were you a geeky, awkward social outcast yourself when you were 17? No. He was a white middle-class kid living on the outskirts of Chicago.

Such matter-of-factness isn't a cover. Doyle is genuinely unpretentious about his work. His characters, he says, all start out as fairly straightforward stock characters. They include the geek, the sexually ambiguous guy, the party girl, the cheerleader, the jock--all populate the book in their shallow glory, just like teenagers themselves. And as they slip in and out of cookie-cutter personas, Doyle tweaks with their personalities until they really come out on their own.

His biggest challenge is making sure that his characters don't sound like they were drawn up by a 48-year-old father of three, which required extra effort. Doyle goes out of his way to keep his finger on the pulse of teen vernacular. He surfs the internet and listens to teenagers, and so is ready to hold forth on the latest transformations.

"`Gangsta' was really popular for a while," he muses. "But it's sort of gone on the decline, I think. You don't hear it that much. So there isn't a new vernacular that replaces it in that kind of foreign-language-y way. It seems like a lot of people have fallen back on things that aren't that current. `Gangsta' felt like a foreign language. Now a lot of '90s-isms seem to be coming back."

As a farewell tribute to that era, Doyle produces Henry, a poor little upper-middle-class kid with a porkpie hat and a tendency to come out with lines like, "Why don't you ice the bustas and kick it with a brutha." The crowning indignity is that Henry is black.

"It was a twist on the stock comedy thing, when you have a white guy who tries to act black," Doyle says. "I was thinking,Why not have a black guy trying to act black?, his having no reference point for it. Like, both of his parents are doctors. And he's not just acting black, he's doing it anachronistically, because it's already sort of out to do that. Hip-hop is still around, but that hip-hop culture thing . . . I guess too many people took it too far. It got kind of ridiculous."

The novel is littered with snippets of, and references to, popular music. At first glance, Doyle seems to be showing his age there. There are constant references to Pink Floyd or Van Halen. But in an age when the music industry is still feeding on the wallets and tastes of baby boomers, Doyle is making a point. The music industry isn't geared toward teenagers anymore, so they take what they can find.

"Classic rock is coming back for them," he says. "I'm thinking about mid-'70s hard classic rock. I got these mixes after going onto iTunes and looking at graduation mixes that were being posted by teenagers, and what struck me was how many included, for them, ancient songs. [Alice Cooper's] `School's Out,' for example."

He also has a protective streak. People like to criticize the under-20 crowd as politically apathetic, or submissive. Doyle doesn't think that's the case. "A lot of kids are swinging left again after having swung right," he says. "But in the last five years, you've been seeing a lot of crunchy granola, that movement stuff. I think that's good. But they must be rebelling against . . . maybe their parents came of age in the '80s, the types who really went for the money. So maybe it's the '60s all over again. And once they start getting drafted, you'll see that happen really fast. Right now the only people who are getting their asses shot off are the ones who culturally `belong' to the military. That's why they're in the military. Or they don't economically have the choice not to be."

Though Doyle comes across as pretty placid, some things do rattle him--particularly the most controversial character in his book: a battle-scarred Marine named Kevin who winds up turning into Denis' bÍte noir. Doyle has been taken through the wringer a few times by nervous executives who wonder if Kevin is the best way to portray one of America's finest. And, judging from his comments, he's told them what he thinks.

"I hate this sort of bullshit, where someone who's involved in the negotiations to make this a movie asks me if I'm not supporting the troops by having this character," Doyle says. "My personal answer is A) I don't give a fuck, and B) I'm really tired of the demagoguing by using anything you can find as a way of suppressing any kind of dissent. I support the troops--I want them here, instead of getting shot in the head. And as long as they're there, maybe the fuckers who sent them over there can spend enough money so that they have body armor."

There's a pause, but he's not finished. "Yeah, but, man, those people make me so mad. They will. They're simultaneously, like, `We support the troops, we want to support the troops.' But they're not going to spend any money on their medical care when they come back. We're not going to do anything about the jobs they lost because people pulled them out of their jobs using loopholes in their contract."

However hard he tries to hide it, Larry Doyle cares about what he's doing. You just have to provoke him a little to find that out. Fortunately, the occasional second-guessing by Hollywood execs hasn't done any damage to his career yet. He's sold the movie rights to Chris Columbus, and Fox Atomic is going to make it--"if it gets made," Doyle says. Currently, he's working on the screenplay. It may tank, he admits candidly, just like the two movies he wrote--Duplex, starring Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore, and Looney Toons: Back in Action--did in 2003. Or I Love You, Beth Cooper may never make it to the big screen, like the other 10 screenplays he's written. But compared to other Hollywood hacks, he's quick to add, his percentage is pretty good. The reviews of the novel have been positive. The market is untapped. And the book is, no joke, very funny. Thirteen could be Larry Doyle's lucky number.

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