Gr 9-12-Prepare for a trip into the suburban American heart of darkness. The horrifying sexual assault of a mildly retarded teenage girl by a group of popular high school athletes who have known her since childhood polarizes the residents of an affluent community and gains national-media coverage. Told from three varying perspectives, a disturbing portrait emerges of unconscionable violence. Laura Jean Kettering, girlfriend of one of the accused, defends her boyfriend and berates the victim. Childlike and trusting Cara performs what ever acts the boys ask of her and is unable to imagine that anyone would exploit her. Joe Lopez is a Hispanic American from a low-income family; his athletic skill gives him entry into the inner circle, but he remains an outsider. He witnesses the beginning of Cara's degradation and leaves the scene, unwilling to participate in the vile events that he knows are about to happen. The novel ends with Laura Jean's break-up with Scott, and with the names of the boys involved in the incident missing from the roster of graduates. Unlike the figures in Norma Fox Mazer's seamlessly written, well-controlled Out of Control (Morrow, 1993), Tamar's participants never assume responsibility for their actions. The narrative is choppy and disjointed, the characters uneven and often one-dimensional, and the ending anticlimactic. The story, based on the much-publicized 1989 Glen Ridge, New Jersey, case, doesn't work as literature.-Alice Casey Smith, Lakewood Public Library, NJ
Although her previous YA books demonstrate a good sense of contemporary problems, Tamar is not an author known for using controversial subject matter or highly charged language in her novels--as is, for example, Chris Crutcher. Consequently, her latest book is a real surprise. Certain to raise eyebrows not only among some adults, but also among teenagers, it is a shocking story that draws on the circumstances of a highly publicized, real-life tragedy--the sexual assault of a mentally disabled girl by a group of high-school athletes. In the hands of a weaker writer, this story might have degenerated into sick melodrama. Although Tamar teeters very close to the edge of exploitation at times, she somehow manages to keep control of both her characters and her plot. The horror she spins out is riveting. Like her 1991 novel "Out of Control", about a rock band, "Fair Game" evolves through alternating perspectives--in this case, the voices of three strongly realized teenage characters: Cara, the victim; Laura Jean, girlfriend of one of the high-school jocks involved in the assault; and Joe (Julio) Lopez, a jock who ends up leaving the rape scene without participating directly in the crime. With the exception of Joe, the token minority from the "other" side of town, the traditional jock stereotype prevails. Laura Jean's boyfriend, Scott, and his buddies are macho, white, privileged, and sexist. Scott's convinced that women are either "goddesses or doormats," and he doesn't hesitate to share his philosophy. Joe is more sensitive than Scott and the other jocks, as scenes with his little sister prove, but he's certainly not above reproach. In fact, he escapes involvement in the rape not because he's unexcited by the situation--pretty Cara is an innocent willing to do "anything" the boys ask--and not because of any sense of moral outrage (at one point he calls Cara "an asshole"), but because of an affront to his Latino background: "Go for it Jose," someone tells him. "Here's your shot at [being] an American." Obviously sex is not a minor theme in this book, and what is described is presented with an explicitness rare in YA novels. The sex explicitly depicted here is not the kind between kids who care for each other, as Judy Blume wrote about first in "Forever". Rather what's described is sex grown out of purposeful misuse of power, a horrifying violation, and Joe's conversation with one of the boys who participated in Cara's assault makes the reader privy to it all--the gang rape, the violation with the broom handle. Cara's own description of the events, told in a childlike voice Tamar has carefully cultivated for her throughout the novel, adds the element of personal terror: "Faces above me. Faces everywhere. Faces staring down. . . ." Tamar doesn't shy away from the idea that there's excitement in the violence and in the anonymity that comes with acting as part of a group. And, like Rubin in "Emily Good as Gold" , which is written for a somewhat younger audience, she deals forthrightly with the issue of sexuality of the mentally disabled. Cara, who's not severely disabled and is physically well-developed, finds pleasure in intimacy with the boys because it feels good, not just because she thinks it makes her "friends with the popular guys. . . ." But the rape that eventually occurs is another matter, and Cara, even in all her desire to please, realizes "they hurt me. I thought they were my friends."The opposite of easily victimized Cara is feisty, loyal Laura Jean, the real star of the story. Blinded at first by her love for Scott, she's the only one of the young people who recognizes the horrible truth and moral reprehensibility of what occurred: that "people can complacently do evil when they dehumanize the `other.'" And she's the only young person involved who really understands that Cara's inability to say "no" doesn't make her "fair game" any more that it makes Laura Jean a "princess" and Cara a "doormat." Tamar chose to show the "evil" in a relentlessly explicit way. While she might have laid her message down more subtly, it would certainly not have made as strong an impact, especially among readers for whom grocery store tabloids and violence on television and in films have become routine.