What’s the Matter With Shermer? or, How John Hughes Turned Me Against Dave Eggers

My Gen-X brain is slowly showing signs of memory loss, so I can’t recall exactly where I saw every film by the late John Hughes. But I’m pretty sure I caught both Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club in a movie theater in Forest Park, Illinois, not far from my hometown of Lyons. The location was meaningful to me. Forest Park is about 20-odd miles south of Northbrook—Hughes’ hometown, the filming location of much of his best-loved films, and the stand-in for the mythical town of Shermer, his upscale Yoknapatawpha of teenage angst.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is famous for being a kind of accidental tourism film for Chicago; the Art Institute of Chicago, in particular, never had it so good onscreen. For me, it also served as a tourism film for Chicago’s North Shore, home to some very nice houses (though the Bueller home in the film is in California) and some very good schools. Bueller’s mad dash home at the end of the movie through the backyards of Shermer required huffing and puffing through big, broad lawns, leaping hedges every hundred paces, occasionally cutting through streets that were sometimes politely interrupted by traffic. If I were to attempt the same trick at the time, I’d have to avoid the gravel trucks leaving the quarry a block away and jump chain-link fences (and cranky dogs) every 20 feet.

That’s a long way of saying that Bueller was one of my first introductions to class distinctions. Though Bueller and his friends shared some of the same geographical touchstones I did (I liked going to Cubs games and the Art Institute too), there was an ocean-wide gap between their lives and mine. Though Hughes films are celebrations of the teenage rebel, those rebels all achieve closure by embracing the upscale existence they spend their lives in anyhow. Bueller is going go back to his high school and listen to Ben Stein drone; Molly Ringwald‘s characters in Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink land cute, upper-middle-class guys, despite her other-side-of-the-tracks mala fides in the latter; Judd Nelson‘s badass rebel in The Breakfast Club landed Molly Ringwald, in that film the epitome of North Shore comfort and assurance. Hughes films are mostly about finding love, but they’re also a little about finding the shortcut to upward social mobility.

It was, for an attendee of a high-school in a blue-collar suburb that had aggressively resisted any tax increases for schools in decades, a little grating. (None of which is meant to paint my adolescence, or where I grew up, as degraded or miserable; Chicago suburbs get economically worse the farther south you go, and I was pinned somewhere in middle. I did much better than cartons of cigarettes on Christmas, I got to go to a good college, and the promise of upward social mobility has worked out just fine for me.) After about ten years or so, John Hughes films and youth spent in a UAW household installed a few prejudices in me. So by 2000, when Dave Eggers published his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, my brief on the book wasn’t, “Here’s something by a guy who used to work at the same paper I do,” but “Here’s something by a guy who grew up in Lake Forest.” My initial reaction to the very existence of the book was active dislike.

It seems a little silly, now—after all, plenty of my favorite writers were raised in perfectly nice homes more than a few rungs up the class ladder than I was. Would I have resented Michael Chabon for growing up in Columbia, Maryland, if I grew up in one of that town’s scruffier neighbors? At any rate, the only evidence of class resentment I can detect in my review of Staggering Genius is my urge to stress that Eggers lived in “Lake Forest, an affluent Chicago suburb.” I’m confident that my disappointment in the book was more a function of its contents than the feelings I brought to it, though it can be difficult for a reviewer to separate the two; I’m also certain that And You Shall Know Our Velocity! is an awful book because it is an awful book, not awful because somebody who grew up in Lake Forest wrote it.

If my prejudices were still deep-seated, I could keep myself busy for a while reading nothing but books about working-class families in the Midwest. That would make me sick of my own existence fairly quickly, though; one of the main pleasures of reading fiction is that it introduces you to lives you couldn’t experience, haven’t experienced. Those old Hughesian resentments haven’t reduced my admiration for Ward Just, who’s as North Shore as they come. The goal is to avoid thinking of people—as the poignant, fist-pumping note at the end of The Breakfast Club put it—“in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.” If I’m being honest, I’ll concede that Hughes probably taught me a little bit about that too.

9 thoughts on “What’s the Matter With Shermer? or, How John Hughes Turned Me Against Dave Eggers

  1. I’ve always felt the same way about the suburbs. Being from inner-city Chicago it seems like my generation has put out way too many books set in the suburbs. I’m always looking for good, urban stories.

    At the same time, I really enjoyed A Heartbreaking Work. It was just so… enjoyable. But the book you should check out it Zeitoun. It’s really his best book, and I think it will transcend your prejudices.

  2. Hey Stephen: For a guy who talks about transcending his prejudices, how about transcending your own in relation to me? You don’t answer my efforts at diplomacy and you decline my invite to The Bat Segundo Show after your publicist at Graywolf has gone out of her way to sell your book to me (and actually convinced me).

    You might also wish to disclose the fact that Dave Eggers has published you. So you’re not exactly free of your own prejudices in bemoaning Mark’s perfectly reasonable feelings.

  3. I didn’t realize there were efforts at diplomacy going on or that we needed diplomacy. I didn’t decline an invite to be on your show. I’m happy to do an in person interview for The Bat Segundo Show.

    I also didn’t realize I had to disclose that Dave Eggers published me to leave a comment on a blog saying I liked his work.

    Send me an email if you want to setup an interview. I’m happy to do it. I wouldn’t have seen your comment here if Mark hadn’t alerted me to it.

    Best way to get hold of me is stephen@therumpus.net.

  4. Stephen: Good to know. Will contact you off list about all this early in the week and spare poor Mark some grief. But I should observe that your publicist insisted to me that she contacted you about this and you declined. Perhaps there was some communications mix-up. In any event, more (peacefully) later.

  5. Some of the best writers came from families who had a taste of the affluent life before something conspired to take it away. I’m thinking of Melville and Fitzgerald though it seems like I’ve noticed it in others as well.

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