Desert Isle Keeper
Getting Over Jack Wagner
Every so often you read a book that feels as if might have been written just for you. Getting Over Jack Wagner fits neatly into that category for me, and while there are many things to love about this book, I feel that I should begin with a disclaimer that not everyone may react to this book as I did, may not identify as I did with its heroine. If, for example, you can hear the name Lola without wondering, somewhere in the murky depths of your subconscious, whether she “walks like a woman and talks like a man,” this book may not be for you. If hearing a reference to an unknown Jenny doesn’t bring to mind a phone number, this book may not be for you. And if you’ve never heard of Jack Wagner, General Hospital, or an ’80s love song called “All I Need,” you should promptly put this book back on the shelf, and find something with a more familiar backdrop. If, however, you understood everything I’ve just said, and are smiling along with me, please continue.
Eliza Simon is a copywriter for a travel agency by day, a connoisseur of “rock stars” by night, picking out her latest prey in the blacklit depths of Philadelphia’s Blue Room and moving in for the kill. But no matter how “deep” her new musician is, no matter how wild he seems, some mundane detail always surfaces to convince Eliza that her Jukebox Hero is just a boring guy, a mama’s boy, or worse, a band camp enthusiast. It all started in 1984, the year Jack Wagner and Eliza’s father Lou both broke her heart. That was the year that Jack (and his soap character, Frisco) found love, and Lou found a life in California that didn’t include his wife or daughters. Eliza never fully recovered from either event.
Aiding and abetting Eliza are her two best friends, Hannah and Andrew. Hannah and Andrew are the two biggest supporting cast members, and each is part stereotype, part human being. Hannah’s a quiet, serene, earthy psych major who drinks herbal tea and hesitantly and inoffensively psychoanalyzes Eliza in a helpful way that never quite gets through. Andrew is a law student, a stuffed shirt waiting to happen, but with a sense of irony sharp enough to kill. Andrew also says painfully embarrassing things like “What up, dog?” without any ability to carry them off. His air guitar habit is even worse. He’s there to keep Eliza steady, to keep her sane, to keep her sense of humor intact. Between the two of them, they keep Eliza afloat through the Karls and Wins and Jordans of her life. But one of these days she’s going to have to do more than stay afloat. She’s going to have to learn to swim.
Meanwhile on the home front, Eliza’s sister Camille, her brother-in-law Scott, her mother Linda, and stepdad Harv are moving on in life as well. It’s only Eliza who’s stuck in one spot, only Eliza who never learned to deal with Lou’s departure. Or is it?
The format of the book is a fun one, juxtaposing each present-tense chapter with a chapter from Eliza’s past, starting in the momentous year of 1984. Each chapter also has a suggested Mix Tape play list, Side A’s being more current songs for the present-tense chapters, and Side B’s being memorable and appropriate songs from the time periods encompassed in her “past” chapters. This fun and funny quality permeates the book, brilliantly offsetting the more serious and difficult themes of self-understanding and adjustment.
Eliza herself is a great character who, as I mentioned, I identified with quite a bit. A former English Major, she finds typos, spelling errors and grammatical faux pas in print annoying. She loves music, musicians and pop culture. She watches reruns of Alf and Webster (I still want to know where), and finds VH-1 addictive. She makes lists with titles like “Words To Outlaw If I Were President” (“Prom” without the article is #1). She has inspirations like having “Movies That Smell” and writing a book about musicians with mix-tape suggestions for each chapter. She’s fun and funny and a little bit clueless, but not TSTL. She has issues. But if your Dad and Jack Wagner both broke your heart in the same year, wouldn’t you?
The plot of this book is almost entirely internal, and features Eliza learning to deal with Lou, with Jack, and with Eliza. Jack, like the music, is more of a metaphor for Eliza’s life, and is extremely effective. Perhaps the most telling lines of the book are in the first flashback chapter:
The beauty of eighties music was this: rock stars weren’t afraid to speak their feelings. Back then, it wasn’t corny. It wasn’t suspicious. It wasn’t desperate. They could spill their guts in a flood of synthesizers, cymbals, A-B-A-B rhyme schemes and long notes high as women’s. They were genuinely impassioned as they ‘brought ships into shore,’ ‘threw away the oars,’ and ‘made love out of nothing at all.’ Even heartbreak was delivered with a bravado that seems almost comical to me now. As a grown-up, I find that kind of openness terrifying. But in 1984, it was acceptable, even desirable, and it was the way I loved Jack Wagner: with confidence, fearlessness, and a T-shirt bearing a steam-ironed decal of his sultry face.
And that in a nutshell, is Eliza. What she learns, accepts, and changes in the course of the story is very important, but right there in the second chapter, we meet the real Eliza, the Eliza who makes us reminisce, laugh, and perhaps tear up just a bit.
The appeal of this book, for the ideal audience is two-fold. First, the story of a young woman with humor, intelligence, and issues using the first two of those to deal with the third. Second, the chance to reminisce about a time when the music was unabashedly emotional, the fashions were nightmarish, and we were young enough to love it all. Both make it worth your while. They made it worth mine.