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1980s YA: SO RADICAL!

Group SEX, am I right?

YA was hardcore in 1983, yo.  I bought my original copy of The Grounding of Group Six at Barnes and Noble in Boston when I was 10 – the huge one on Boylston that looked like a half-melted White House, and I’m not going to lie to you: I bought it because of the cover.

In fact, before I even get into the book itself, I’m going to rhapsodize about the cover.  THE COVER.  It’s one of those shady, “serious” YA covers from the 80s, and everyone in the group shot looks like they would CUT YOU.  Which is totally misleading, because they’re all just total dorky sweethearts, and also “rich kids,” which is apparently shorthand for a bewildering lack of basic life skills, so they’re kind of adorably helpless and then they learn to camp out because, and this can’t really count as a spoiler since the basic premise of the book is plastered all over the jacket and the back cover, although it would have been fucking mindblowing going into it blind: Front cover – “Parent’s don’t kill their kids for just one reason. They’re afraid to get caught.” Back cover – “Nat had been hired by the Coldbrook Country School to make sure Group 6 never came out of the woods alive. And their own parents were paying the bill.”

So, you’ve got that tag line, and then each kid looks like a sullen little bitch, so you kind of WANT their parents to kill them: Marigold looks like you’ve already bored her into a coma, Ludi looks like you smell incredibly bad, I mean, she has to breathe through her mouth just to even look at you,  and Sarah has her “Knickerbocker, please,” face on; she’s clearly thinking about punching you in the neck.  And the boys!  None of them look like how I pictured them in the book (Ludi, too, is way tougher looking on the cover than in my mind’s eye) and poor Sully looks like he’s tweaking.  Of the lot of them, Nat’s face is the most passive, the least defined.  He’s sort of imaginary compared to the others, like, if an Elf escaped a Dungeonmaster’s Guide and got lost in a romance novel cover before he crept into the YA section?

Anyway, despite/because how misleading it is, the cover is awesome, for reals: just look at it! Marigold, vaguely Cher-like, and obviously comfortable with her teenage sexuality, Coke hunkered down and relaxed, with his hand in a casual yet non-sexual curl around his friend’s leg, his friend who is totally organized and competent and a girl, and Nat… Nat  looks like an ad for the Bon Jovi Hairclub for Men, sporting this stylin’ mullet (yet clean shaven, even though in the book he has a blond goatee OMG) and also? He’s wearing supenders and an unbuttoned shirt over a smooth, naked chest (clearly something he picked up in the romance section). So you already know what you’re getting into, babies. That’s right: HEDONISM.

Oh, did you think it was a coincidence that the title practically says “group sex?” Because it’s totally not. I mean, group sex doesn’t happen in the actual book, but it’s easy to imagine that it happens at the end when they all  quit school to move in together! SO IMPLIED. Also, teachers fucking their students, but it so totally doesn’t count because I don’t think Nat fucks Ludi until the book technically ends, and she’s probably 17 by then, maybe? Plus, he’s only 22 and fresh from college, so yeah, older, but not 42, and not Buffy/Angel old.

But maybe you’re totally fine with the age thing, and you’re hung up on the fact that he, you know, was hired to ASSASSINATE her? and that six weeks living rough in mortal peril manufactured some kind of Stockholm Syndrome Teen Romance? Well, sheesh, come on, he wasn’t actually her killer, so it’s not like he menaced her into bed with him. She actually has an entire school full of boys her own age and in her group to hook up with, so. She makes her decision with clear eyes! Which you can totally do if you’re an old soul and also a little psychic and 16 years old and abandoned/murdered by your rich parents!  ::ahem::

But the whole thing where he was hired to murder them? Well, he’s a gambler, but a doof and a sweetheart and he was just desperate, right? And he didn’t really think he was being paid to actually kill them, because he’s so simplehearted it doesn’t even occur to him that it’s not just some elaborate scared straight scheme? And once he realizes that he was, in fact, supposed to actually murder them and also, THIS JUST IN, be murdered in turn, he comes clean and tells them that their parents put them on a hitlist and then he turns them into this team of scrappy survivalists in an amazingly non-creepy way (kind of like Red Dawn, but with way less communist hysteria). He’s just a big goofy golden labrador of a man, who likes to be outside, and not to be kneecapped by the bookie he owes dough to.

It’s just, like, extreme Outward Bound.

To return to the theme so elegantly communicated by the cover, this book is basically full of attempted child murder from the get go. Also, it was a lot cheaper to kill people in 1983. I mean, rich people paid the actual administrators of the school who knows how much to put Xs in their kid’s eyes, but DollarTimes.com told me that the 3K the school would have paid Nat (instead they wisely gave him 1500 and promised to send the rest later) would only be like $6,995.07 in 2012. That’s not even 1400 bucks a head! Nat: assassinatin’ rich kids on the cheap since 1983! Group discounts, woo!  (Get it? )

Oh, and I kind of love the guy Nat owes money to: Arn-The-Barn Emfatico.  His uncle’s a gangster, and so he’s obliged to collect the cash, even though he likes Nat and he himself isn’t a huge fan of the old ultraviolence.  He’s a simple guy.  He likes nature and Pepsi and Milky Ways.  He has a girlfriend who loves motels: “they kind of turned her on.”

The Grounding of Group Six is amazing for so many reasons: the kids drink and fuck and bond, the adults curse and drink and plot to kill them, and somehow, although the kids go through some crazy deep trauma, they come out remarkably well-adjusted and quite likely to become just the sort of pleasant, relaxed, and totally self-actualized people who become casual billionaires, because they all got to have super cathartic moments that helped them get over their respective mommy and daddy issues.  At 10, my takeaway from this book was the steadfast belief that no matter how horrifying my family, I could make it through.

To recap:

1) Villainous parents/authority figures!

2) Healthy teen sexuality with a focus on birth control!

3) One girl is psychic for no apparent reason without any real bearing on the plot!

4) Like everything 80s, it features a training montage!

Seriously, why are you not reading this book right now?  It’s so totally great.  What I’m saying here is, you should read it. You should read it SO HARD.

Editor’s note: The current edition of this book sold on Amazon, both in print and for Kindle, appears to have been released by the author after getting the rights back from his publisher. This means instead of the magnificent cover to which fully half of this post is in praise of, you’ll instead get something he may or may not have created himself in Microsoft Paint. The good news, though, is that almost the entire sale price of any copy sold will go to pay author’s mortgage — purchase it with pride!

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kormantic has currently lost over 16 millionteen games of Words With Friends in a row. She lives with Matt in their secret lair in the heart of a volcano. She likes CANDY and words that rhyme.

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10 Responses to “1980s YA: SO RADICAL!”

  1. kormantic says:

    Also, his new cover looks like the most horrible kind of venereal disease ever, and not at all like innocent teens being poisoned and chucked into a crevasse!

  2. Penni says:

    You’re right- a VD called ‘falling crotch’.
    Holy shit, this book sounds great.

  3. willowatcher says:

    OMG! This was totally my favorite book as a young teen! I still have my copy (and every other book by Julian F Thompson). You never know when you’re going to need to review those survival skills. Especially with the zombie apocalypse coming.

    • kormantic says:

      I feel like I’ve read other books by him, but I can’t think of them – they certainly didn’t burn themselves into my brain the way G6 did!

  4. Katie Cord says:

    This is the kind of YA I remember from childhood. Thanks for sharing!

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