Book Review: brat: an 80s Story

When anyone meets me for the first time, two things are obvious. I am a born-and-bred Jersey Girl and I am a Gen-Xer. I still love the music and movies of the 80s. Nowadays when I drive, there are very few radio stations I listen to; most of which are satellite and focus on music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. My favorite movies included a small group of actors that came to be known as the Brat Pack. Everyone had their favorite. For me, it was Andrew McCarthy.

I saw a lot of myself in the characters he portrayed. In St. Elmo’s Fire, he played a wannabe writer who gets his first byline. I grew up wanting to do two things as an adult: be a writer and a photographer. While I never became a full-time accomplished writer, I do have a few bylines to my name and have a few blogs where I get to scrawl and scribble, even if no one really reads them.

So why am I telling you all this? Stick with me.

Whether it was because I was a teenager or not, the 80s were an awesome time in history (and yes, I used “awesome” on purpose). And the Brat Pack movies had a lot to do with it.

There were times watching McCarthy it almost felt like he wasn’t acting. As if those roles really fit his style. I now know in some instances that was true. Enter his book brat: an 80s story.

brat: an 80s Story by Andrew McCarthy

This fellow New Jerseyan shares his rise – and fall – and rise again in the fickle world of entertainment in his recently published book. Of course as soon as I heard about its release, I needed to read it. Trust me when I tell you, it did not disappoint. I read it over the course of two evenings. The last time I read something so quick was a book from another important figure from my youth; fellow Jersey Girl, Judy Blume, and the book was Summer Sisters.

I quickly switched back to 16 again, watching those movies, listening to that music, and doing things, well, let’s just say I am thankful social media wasn’t around.

As I read, and he mentions places in Jersey in the first few chapters, I found myself wondering if the arcade on 22 he went to was at Bowcraft (a home-grown amusement park), how everyone in Jersey MUST be good at skee-ball and if his brother ever played golf at Hendrick’s Field, the public course in Belleville behind my house. He talked about hanging out in Washington Square Park, which made me remember my first job in the City and walking over to the park and eating my lunch there while I watched the street performers. He talked about going with a friend to the second-hand clothing shops, which made me think of my regular visits to the Unique Boutique.  Like him, I went to the Raccoon Lodge. The biggest difference, however, is that he was 17. I wasn’t allowed into the City on my own until after I graduated from college. But I remember feeling just as wide-eyed as he describes his experiences of familiar places to me.

He spoke of the awkwardness of his high school years. While he was always self-conscious about looking too feminine, I was often self-conscious about looking too masculine. By the time I hit high school, my mother started to give up on getting me to “dress like a girl,” and I fell into the habit of oversized sweatshirts and jeans. I stuck to my denim jacket (complete with a music note of safety pins on the back), an Army Class A jacket I picked up at a second-hand store in Bloomfield, and my father’s camel-hair coat. Add to that my voice was kind of deep for a girl my age, which was quite obvious when I would shout over the marching band as drum major. Sophomore year I felt compelled to chop my long hair off, which completed that perfectly boyish look, even if that really wasn’t the goal. When a teacher from the high school first met my brother, he said to a colleague once he thought I was out of earshot “I’m trying to figure out if he’s more feminine or she’s more masculine.” And so it was and so it has been for most of my adult life. Many years later at a full-time job, I learned some of my colleagues referred to me as “Man Benschoten” instead of my proper last name. I never seemed to be able to outrun that “boy thing.”  Sometimes it still bothers me, sometimes I shrug and don’t care in full Gen-X fashion.

Like him, I enjoyed my time alone. For him, he smoked pot. For me, it was riding my bike over to the high school, climbing to the top of the stadium, sitting in the corner and reading. Smoking pot never even crossed my mind. As far as I knew, none of my friends did and my mother could have worked for the CIA. She found out everything. It wasn’t worth the risk.

“Like the first light of dawn, there is a transitory magic in it, a singular quality, something so fresh it seems it must be occurring for the first time.”

Like McCarthy, I found solace in the arts program. For him it was (obviously) drama and it started him down a successful path that led him to NYU. Me? Well, I never got out of the chorus/background dancers, with the exception of one actual line in the production of “It’s Christmas Charlie Brown” (“watch it lady, you almost made me drop my packages!”). I was in concert band, jazz band, chorus, orchestra, drama club, and marching band. I wasn’t “officially” on stage and light crew, but I helped out backstage with the plays before I summoned up the courage to actually try out. For me, that’s as far as my artistic journey went. I didn’t have “it.”

1986 Mercury Cougar
Me in my Cougar, 1988.
Yes, I thought I was that cool.

His announcement to major in acting when he went to college went over about as well as my announcement to major in journalism. I was pushed at every opportunity to become an attorney. When I came home with my declaration form for the Communication Department, well, I’ll just say it didn’t go over well and leave it at that. Like McCarthy, I stuck to my guns and kept with it. And I discovered I did have an aptitude for certain parts of the process. For me, it was print production and typography, along with writing.

We both had our own departmental champions. For him it was Terry Hayden. For me, it was Dr. Don McKenna and Professor Pete Rosenblum. That dynamic duo were my supporters at every turn. They told me about this thing called “prepress.” Where I get to be involved in the actual process of preparing work to go to press. I was in love. Like McCarthy, I was eager to learn all I could. Also, like McCarthy, some teachers were less than thrilled with my feeble classroom attempts. We both struggled with speech class. My prim and proper professor attempted to remove the Jersey from my accent and teach me a proper mid-Atlantic speech pattern (think Katharine Hepburn). Shocker – it didn’t work. I passed, but I think only because I just kept showing up to class. I didn’t care. I dove head first into learning all I could about prepress and writing.

Throughout the book, he has the ability to weave stories of experiences of his past and how those experiences affected his career as he continued to learn and hone his craft. I took special attention to how he handled anxiety while shooting his first feature movie, Class, and how as a director he quietly says “aaaand… action” instead of yelling “ACTION!” like we all see in the movies.

He told his mother he was a pessimist. I call myself a realist. I think they are two sides of the same coin.
Just about the same time he was becoming interested in the technical aspects of filmmaking, I was becoming more and more interested in the technical aspects of photography and press work. As a girl, however, opportunities at the time were limited. At one job, I did become friendly with a stripper (not THAT kind) and would let me watch him work during my lunch and would occasionally let me make bluelines. Every so often I was told I was told I had aptitude. And just like McCarthy was told “you became a pro on this one, Andy,” I would fly high.

One page 130, he finally gets to my favorite of all the Brat Pack movies; St. Elmo’s Fire and devotes a solid twenty-something pages to it. His character, Kevin, felt like it had followed me around my entire life. Cynical, sarcastic, in the background of the group, the oversized clothes, the camel-hair coat. His behind-the-scenes account of the “Respect bongo” scene, my favorite of the entire movie, was just wonderful.

He talks about his use – and abuse – of alcohol. The year he went into rehab was the year I graduated from college. He faced his demon head on and won. Instead of thinking of it as the end of his career, he continued to push forward. He found his way to… writing.

I also give him a lot of credit for how he handled the end of his father’s life. Gracious is hardly enough to describe how he faced the situation.

Overall, I really enjoyed his writing style and his ability to construct some beautifully written sentences. Over time he came to accept his role as a member of the Brat Pack. He now understands that for many of us fellow Gen-Xers, those movies hold a special place for us. For that, I am thankful.

I hope it is a little easier bein’ you now, Mr. McCarthy.

One thought on “Book Review: brat: an 80s Story

  1. Laura Topliffe says:

    I really should have thrown this in cart when I ordered some other books today. Guess I’ll just throw more money at Amazon tomorrow. Thanks for the review, I think I will love it as much as you did!

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