David Owen

Fast Times at Ridgemont High [the book, out of print]

By Cameron Crowe (Fireside, 1981, out of print)

The wonderfully renovated and highly relevant magazine Harper’s has recently collected articles from its pages into a volume called The idea, its editor, Bill Wasik, has said, is that in these times we cannot rely on the usual dance between reporter and source, or reporter and press secretaries or corporate spokesmen, to get at the truths that need getting at; we have to do better, and so reporters have to go under deep cover. Think Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickle and Dimed, or Jeff Sharlet in The Family.

We at the New Haven Review are all for conscious journalism (sort of like conscious rap, but with less bass). The more ideas, the more social good, the better. But it would be a shame to lose sight of an allied tradition that is equally vital, if less world-changing, and is often more fun to read: let’s call it submersion-into-adolescent-angst journalism. This would be the tradition of Alexandra Robbins’s which I haven’t read but has a sexy cover, or the aptly named David Owen’s forgotten classic of going undercover at a suburban high school.

The ne plus ultra of all submersion-into-adolescent-angst journalism is Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High — not the movie (though we do love the movie, which featured the best about-to-break-out cast ever: Sean Penn, Anthony Edwards, Phoebe Cates, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Judge Reinhold, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, all before they were famous) but the book, based on Crowe’s return to his old high school. The final product, which is sort of novelized journalism, or journalistic fiction (nournalism? jiction?), takes all sorts of liberties with the truth, and it would probably be less of a delightful romp if it hewed to the facts. But if you want a snapshot of SoCal teen life in the late ’70s — sex, abortion, cars, cool tunes, kind bud — written with compassion and an ear for the way kids really talked, this is where to turn.

The book Fast Times at Ridgemont High is one of the great under-appreciated cultural documents of Americana, and the damned thing isn’t even in print any more, hasn’t been for years. Given that Cameron Crowe must have some serious suck in the showbiz world, you’d think it would be in print if he wanted it to be, which leaves us to surmise that he’s ashamed of one of his great creations. So the mediocrity Vanilla Sky lives on on Netflix, but a copy of Crowe’s wicked cool book can’t be found. if he weren’t so stoned right now, would surely be bummed out.

Mark Oppenheimer is putting the finishing touches on his memoir of high school debating, to be published by Free Press. He is also an editor of the New Haven Review.