Underground Reading: Harrison High by John Farris
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Harrison High (1959) was written by John Farris at the precocious age of 23. It sold over a million copies, spawned four sequels and, in 1960, was made into a movie. It is a sprawling piece of JD ('juvenile delinquency') fiction that charts the course of an entire year at any Anytown, American high school.
Harrison High is a highly-regarded school in a traditionally upper-class neighborhood. Recent population shifts and general social malaise have conspired to make things a little edgier as of late - the school is no longer solely packed with college-bound jocks, but now has a seedy working-class, jeans-clad underbelly. The school still prides itself in its football team (GO LIONS!), wealthy donors (a whirlpool in the locker room!) and talented faculty.
The book has a handful of protagonists, each with their own unique perspective on Harrison High. The supposed hero (as played by Dick Clark in the film) is Neil Hendry, a new teacher/coach with a jaded attitude stemming from a war wound and a previous teaching job in a crappy location (across town). His love interest is the new Spanish teacher, Joanne Dietrich, who matches Hendry's defeatism with a gloriously unfounded optimism.
The kids far outshine the teachers. Although all the characters are hormonally-imbalanced, painfully egotistical and often catastrophically stupid, at least the teenagers are supposed to be that way. They are represented by Trent (football star and future pharmacist), Ricky (hot blond who went to Sunday school), Buddy (quarterback from the wrong side of the tracks, trying to make good for his single mom), Anne (curvy drama student who wants to make it in Hollywood) and Griff (seedy jd with the sensual lips). The five form an awkward love pentagon - a clumsy sexual salad of self-absorption, naivete and badly-expressed horniness.
Although drugs are entirely absent from Harrison High, the other traditional teen problems abound. Kids drink, smoke, contemplate sex, have sex, regret having sex, have sex some more (with the wrong people), pose for pornography and drive getaway cars for bank robbers. Just like kids today, really - except with less texting.
Farris points out - correctly - that the stakes are high for these kids. For the girls, self-sufficiency isn't an option - the best they can dream of is marriage and children - probably with someone they've met in high school. For the boys, the only ticket to college comes from sports - and from there, the inevitable military service. In the world of Harrison High, it is only the "bad" kids - Anne and Griff - who dream of living adulthood away from their home town. And, to Farris' credit, he strives especially hard to make those two the most empathetic characters of the lot.
Oddly, Harrison High also excels as sports fiction. Football, as noted above, is a high stakes game, and on the field, is played with the bloody intensity of Viking warfare. The lengthy chapter detailing the rivalry game against cross-town Riverside is particularly good - with the class and race overtones adding even more into the mix.
Where Harrison High fails is in the unsurprisingly unprogressive view of sex. Although Farris alludes to the double-standard between men and women, what it comes down to is that the boys are out for sex and the girls are out to stop them. None of the boys are virgins - generally because they explore with 'disposable' early girlfriends. Those (ruined) girls (like Anne) have shattered reputations and invariably tragic lives - loathing themselves because they've a) had sex and b) may have even enjoyed it.
On the other end of the spectrum are the frigid ones - girls with ice water in their veins and the inevitable future of life alone (presumably with a dozen half-feral cats). In the middle are the good girls (like Ricky) - sure, they feel the uncomfortable heat of passion, but they know to keep it under control. And woe to the boy who tries for second base before marriage... It would all be amusing if it weren't so deadly serious. Men, get it out of your system early and often. Women, keep 'em crossed.
Harrison High is, even viewed in the best possible light, a completely superficial exploration of teenage motivations and behavior. Despite that - or because of it - it is an entertaining read that made me wish my tube journey was longer in the morning.
Like the teenagers it features, the book takes itself too seriously, but can still be pretty fun to hang out with.