Fast Times at Waltham High
While Saturday Night Fever is perhaps best remembered for John Travolta’s dashing disco moves, when John Reed first saw the movie as a high school freshman, he was struck by something else. He identified with Tony Manero, played by Travolta, and his desire to escape working-class Brooklyn by dancing his nights away.
A researcher in the University Advancement Division, Reed has recast that story in Waltham, Mass., in his first novel, Another Lousy Day in Paradise (Trestle Press, 2011).
Like Jay Cody, the lead character, Reed attended Waltham High in the early 1980s. It was a world defined by boredom, interrupted by violence, crime and sexual encounters. “I went to high school with a million characters,” Reed says. “Even at the time, I was aware that my high school experience would make a terrific book.”
Reed says that Cody is a composite of himself and four others he knew back in the day: bored, overly concerned with maintaining a reputation as a cool, tough guy and self-involved. Reed calls him “kind of a lost soul.”
“The lesson I wanted him to convey is that learning to break molds and patterns is scary, but inevitable,” Reed says. “Jay wants to be an adult, but his immaturity—and his friends—drag him down.”
Cody’s journey is a brutal chipping away of his beliefs, friends and identity. Instead of finding new awareness, he falls into oblivion.
But don’t expect long meditations, interior monologues or narrative platitudes. Reed develops his characters through action and dialogue. Police chases are so vivid you feel like you’re in the driver’s seat evading the pursuing cruiser, and you experience Cody’s terror when he steals from a local record store.
But life changed, for Reed, and for his protagonist.
In the book, the end of adolescent hijinks is marked with a racial gang rumble that mirrors one that really happened in Waltham and the death of a rebellious student leader in a motorcycle accident.
“I remember being around Lansdowne Street in Boston in ’83 to ’84, and the whole mood had gotten much more serious,” Reed says. “I really think it had a lot to do with the drug culture, which had gotten more prevalent.”
Reed began to find his own life outside of Waltham by working as a DJ at clubs on Lansdowne Street in the early 1980s; he continues the gig on Saturday nights at the Golden Temple in Brookline. He also began reviewing records and concerts for various publications, including the Boston Globe. He arrived at Tufts in 1985.
How did Reed move beyond his own adolescence? Much credit, he says, goes to his high school English teacher, Richard Collins, whom he includes in the book’s dedication. It was Collins who recognized and encouraged Reed’s talent for writing stories and who motivated him to pursue a career in journalism. Collins was a former boxer, “a real man’s man,” as Reed puts it, and convinced Reed it was OK to be “a guy” and like literature.
“Even though I wrote it about and from Waltham,” says Reed, “I am getting emails from people from all over the country who are reading it and saying they also lived through that time and can really relate.”
Gail Bambrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.