Achieve the Honorable is the title of Amy Kaufman Burk’s novel. It’s also the motto of Hollywood High School. Amy’s book is a sharply-told story about a diverse group of kids during the 1973-1974 school year, which was Amy’s (and my) first year at Hollywood High. Although the characters are fictionalized, the story very much rings true to me. I knew all of these people well, from the hyper-rational Caroline Black to Drake, the silver-lame-suit-wearing pimp of child prostitutes, and the remarkably devoted and empathic school counselor. I also knew the undercover narcotics officer posing as a student and getting emotionally involved with one of his underage classmates. After some drug busts at Hollywood High I joined something called The District Attorney’s Student Task Force and got to meet the LA County DA. I looked him in the eye and asked him why it was that Los Angeles could afford to send a secret police team into our school to entrap students but it couldn’t find the money to make sure all the real students had textbooks. He didn’t give me a satisfactory answer.
Amy’s book has been #1 Top Rated for Gay and Lesbian Literary Fiction in Amazon’s Kindle Store. This is a splendid achievement. Achieve the Honorable is a novel where a group of teens deal with their emotional, physical and sexual development in a highly stimulating – and dangerous – environment. It has a sense of social class and a strong anti-bullying message, too. Still, although these are themes that stand out, to me the story is deeper and even more engaging than the categories we naturally fit it into. Achieve the Honorable is a coming of age story with complicated young characters who end up living up to the spirit of the school’s motto despite, or maybe in part because of the undercurrent of violence and strife around campus.
Aside from being in school together, Amy and I have a couple of other things in common. Both of us lived in the rich and comfortable Hollywood Hills. Both of us had fathers who were professional writers in Hollywood. Both of us were raised in homes with untold thousands of books. Neither of us managed to read every book we had access to. I suppose one key difference is that, while Amy was horrified by the violence and chaos that were all over Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, I found the whole environment substantially safer and more nurturing than my home life, most of the time. The pimps, hookers and drug dealers looked out for me more than once when I was a kid out on the streets by myself. The only person who ever pointed a gun at me during those years was an officer of the LAPD.
As I savored Achieve the Honorable, it was impossible not to think about what a nice movie it could be!
Here’s my idea for a sequel. Let’s say Caroline Black graduates from Hollywood High school in the Bicentennial Class of 1976 with high honors. There she is, sitting in the front row on-stage at the Hollywood Bowl in her red graduation gown and with her gold tassel. Well done, Caroline! She goes on to get a Ruling Class Education despite leaving a posh private school for girls to attend Hollywood High. Caroline marries her college sweetheart and goes on to have a good life on the East Coast, never losing her commitment to look out for the underdog and her special ability to see the potential in people others have written off. Finally, Caroline has time to write a novel about her first year at Hollywood High. The book is self-published in the new world of Internet distribution and is a nice success.
Then Hollywood comes calling. Caroline is brought back to her two-month magical time as a Possible Child Actress, to the years of being told, by Anorexic Household Names, “You’re so pretty. Why not lose weight?” She also recalls her father’s success in the industry and the writers who worked on movies he photographed. Hollywood offers a fortune for the movie rights, but won’t let her retain any control. Should she take the money?
Let’s say Caroline decides to sell the story and give every penny to Good Causes. Then we can spend some chapters in Hollywood, checking out the story conferences:
Producer: We’re going to have to make a few changes if we want to make any money.
Hack Writer: What do you have in mind?
Producer: Let’s start with this Caroline character. She’s too smart. She plays on the girls’ basketball team.
Hack Writer: Yeah.
Producer: Let’s make her a cheerleader instead.
Hack Writer: OK.
Producer: Look, I don’t really have time for this. Let me give you some ideas and you can get busy.
Hack Writer: Great.
Producer: Try to stay in the spirit of the book. Just don’t write any scenes where two named female characters talk about anything except boys.
Hack Writer: No problem.
Producer: We lucked out on music, too – for dirt cheap we got the rights to some Ohio Players tracks. So put in some stuff about a school dance. Maybe you can work in a theme about Caroline bringing that girl from her old private school to the dance, and that night she can smoke dope, have sex with one of the gang boys and decide she’s straight after all.
Hack Writer: Yeah, that’ll sell. A lot of boys will go to this picture…
OK, so maybe my view of the movie business is still a little rosy and unreasonably sunny, but you get the idea. I mentioned that my dad was a writer – for TV. My mom worked in background and continuity research for movies and TV, and I did some work in the field too. In that spirit, I offer my single criticism of Achieve the Honorable. In one scene, the song Another One Bites The Dust is playing in the background. That Queen song was released in 1980. For late 1973 to early 1974, the proper choice would be Keep Yourself Alive. An alternate choice would be Gary Glitter’s single, Rock and Roll.