Coming June 9, 2016, Here & Now listeners and visitors will experience our stories and journalism online in a whole new way.
In his debut novel, “Elliot Allagash,” Saturday Night Live writer Simon Rich shows us what happens inside an elite NYC private school. The main character is Seymour, who desperately craves to be one of the popular kids. His wish seems to come true with the arrival of transfer student, Elliot Allagash, who tells Seymour he can make him popular, as long as he does exactly what Elliot says. Author Simon Rich’s next struggle will be to adapt the novel to a screenplay, after director Jason Reitman recently bought the movie options.
My parents always took my side when I was a kid, no matter how much I screwed up. When I smashed my brand new Sega Genesis during a temper tantrum, they blamed the game “Sonic the Hedgehog” for getting me riled up. When I lost my passport at the airport, they blamed themselves for entrusting it to me. So when I told them what Elliot had done to me, I was pretty surprised by their reaction.
“Maybe it was an accident,” my father said. “Accidents happen all the time.”
“I don’t think it was an accident,” I said.
“Are you sure you didn’t imagine it?” my mother asked. “You have such an amazing imagination.”
I struggled to resist the compliment.
“No,” I said. “It wasn’t my imagination. This thing definitely happened.”
It was Monopoly night and even though my father had rolled a seven, he hadn’t yet moved his wheelbarrow. It just sat there, on the wrong square, abandoned. Eventually, both of my parents got up and went into the kitchen.
They didn’t respond but I could hear them murmuring to each other on the other side of the door.
“He pushed me down the stairs,” I said, for what seemed like the hundredth time of the night. “He pushed me, on purpose, in front of a lot of people. It was really crazy.”
Eventually, my parents returned to the table. I noticed that my father was holding a beer. I had only ever seen him drink at weddings and funerals and I was mildly shocked. They both hesitated for a moment, hoping the other one would do the talking.
“The thing about Elliot,” my mother said finally, “is that he’s different from most boys.”
I felt a sudden stab of guilt.
“Oh geez,” I said. “Is he retarded?”
“No,” my father said. “Not exactly.”
“What is it then?” I asked. “What’s different about him?”
My mother cleared her throat.
“He’s rich,” she said.
My father nodded.
“He’s very rich.”
When I look back on the past five years of my life, which have been dominated by Elliot Allagash in almost every way, I can’t help but think about how strange it is we met in the first place. By the time he showed up at my school, in a white vest and boat shoes, Elliot had lived in seven cities, including London, Brussels, and Zurich. Elliot’s father Terry liked to switch homes regularly, based on his whims. The only reason he had moved the family to New York, according to Elliot, was that his favorite glovemaker had opened up a store on Madison Avenue. The choice of Glendale Academy was far less arbitrary: It was the only private school on the East Coast that would consider taking Elliot as a student. While living in those seven cities, he had gotten himself expelled from more than a dozen top-tier schools. Only Glendale, with its dilapidated gym and dated chemistry charts, was financially desperate enough to overlook his record. By the time I met Elliot, his offenses included vandalism, truancy, unprovoked violence, drunkenness, hiring an imposter to take a standardized test, and blackmail. He was thirteen years old.
It’s strange we crossed paths. But it’s even stranger that we became best friends.
Glendale was a small school and it was getting smaller every year. The three long tables in the cafeteria could accommodate about sixty students, but there were only forty-one in my eighth-grade class. When we ate lunch, the twenty most popular kids sat at the back table and the next twenty squeezed into the middle table. I sat at the third table.
Now I’m sure that if I wanted to I could have wedged myself into the middle table—I’d done it once by turning my tray sideways. But the truth is I liked the third table. It was spacious, quiet and, as far as I was concerned, perfectly located. Most students treated lunchtime as a social activity. But I preferred to think of lunchtime as a kind of contest, the goal of which was to drink as many chocolate milks as possible. I didn’t consider lunchtime a success unless I had consumed at least five cartons. At any other seat in the cafeteria, this would have been an impossible dream. But by positioning myself within ten feet of the lunch lady, and working closely with her, I could accomplish this feat almost every day.
I was working on carton number three one afternoon when I noticed that Elliot was sitting right beside me. He had no food in front of him, just a large black notebook.
I hadn’t seen Elliot since he had inexplicably pushed me down the stairs four days ago, on his very first morning at Glendale. I assumed he had sat down next to me in order to apologize. But by the time I went up for my fifth chocolate milk, it was clear he had no intention of doing so. He never once looked in my direction during the meal. Instead, he just stared at his notebook, noisily scratching the pages with a razor-sharp fountain pen. He sat next to me at lunch the following day, and the day after that, and both times it was exactly the same. He never spoke to me or even looked at me. He just sat there, writing. Sometimes he ripped a piece of paper out of his notebook, crumpled it up, and tossed it onto the floor. And once in a while he snapped his fingers before jotting something down with a flourish. I thought about asking him what he was working on, but it seemed important and I didn’t want to interrupt. It didn’t occur to me until years later that he might not have been working on anything. All that scribbling and crumpling and snapping—that was Elliot’s way of saying hello.
Whenever there was a physical altercation between two students, both of them got detentions, regardless of who started it. The policy seemed unfair to me, but I didn’t see any point in arguing with teachers. And besides, I didn’t really mind detention. It was only an hour long and Ms. Pearl, the elderly librarian who supervised it, let us each take two pieces of Laffy Taffy from her bowl at the start of every session. School felt crowded and claustrophobic, but detention was usually empty, except for me, Ms. Pearl, and which?ever boys had attacked me over the course of the week. It was a peaceful environment and sometimes, during stressful weeks, I actually looked forward to it.
Occasionally, Ms. Pearl made us fill out detention forms, but I knew from experience that nobody actually read them, so I never spent much time on them.
Describe what happened: I was standing by my locker, humming a song from the radio, when Lance came over and started fighting me.
What have you learned from this experience?
Apparently humming is one of the things that sets Lance off and makes him want to fight you.
What could you have done differently?
How do you plan to modify your behavior?
I will try not to hum around Lance.
There was a lot to like about detention: the quiet, the candy. But the best part was that Jessica was there. During the school week, I only caught glimpses of her. She was always surrounded by a buffer of boys who followed her from class to class and blocked her from view. But during detention, that buffer dissolved, and I got a chance to observe her up close.
Jessica earned her detentions by flagrantly violating the dress code, over and over again, in a variety of shocking ways. Her outfits were so obviously inappropriate for school that teachers routinely forced her to change into gym clothes in the lobby before classes even began. If she claimed not to have any gym clothes with her, the teachers would sprint to the Lost and Found and drape her with whatever garments they could find there. They moved with the urgency of firemen struggling to extinguish a five-alarm blaze.
It was astonishing to me how much someone’s life could change in just a couple of months. In seventh grade, Jessica had been shy and mousy, a nervous girl whom teachers were constantly reminding to “speak up.” But over the summer, everything about her had gotten much louder. Somehow, she had experienced all of the positive effects of puberty and none of the negative ones. Her face had grown angular without succumbing to acne. She’d sprouted several inches, but her teeth had remained perfectly straight. And while certain parts of her body had swelled enormously, she had retained her size-zero frame. Her body had become so obscenely proportioned that even teachers had a difficult time interacting with her. They stuttered or tripped over their words, and occasionally she would have to ask them to “speak up.”
Excerpted from “Elliot Allagash” by Simon Rich Copyright © 2010 by Simon Rich. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.