Review: Beat the Band by Don Calame

Beat the Band

After achieving their goal of seeing a real, live woman au natural in the summer between their freshman and sophomore years, Matt, Sean and Coop are back with a new goal–to see if they can make it to the elusive third base. Told from Coop’s point of view, Beat the Band is a follow-up to one of my favorite books in recent memory Swim the Fly.

But maybe Fly set my expectations bar way too high because while I liked Beat the Band, I didn’t love it. Part of that could be that Coop is a bit rougher around the edges than Matt was. As they begin their sophomore year, Coop is obsessed with the one thing that pre-occupies all teenage boys–and no, I don’t mean video games. Coop believes he’s just one step away from being a sex symbol and having the lovely ladies swoon for him, but only if he can do something truly epic, memorable and monumental. When a battle of the bands is announced, Coop talks Sean and Matt into entering with him. If they win, Coop believes they will be rock gods and won’t be able to fend the ladies off with a stick.

There’s just a couple of flies in the ointment. First is that the group isn’t really a band. In his desperation to enter the battle, Coop and his father “borrow” a couple of songs from an obscure band on MySpace. Second is his out of work father’s constant interference in the band’s sound, look and direction. Seems that dad is trying to relive his glory days through the band…oh and he’s avoiding doing silly little grown-up things like looking for a job or sending out resumes.

Thirdly, there’s the fact that Coop is paired with “Hot Dog” Helen for their semester-long health class project. Adding insult to injury, the two have been assigned the subject of contraceptives for their presentation. Coop’s reputation could take a serious hit from which it may never recover if he can’t find a way to ditch Helen. In order to get in with the more popular girls, Coop hatches a plan to get Helen to transfer to a private school.

Of course, if you’ve read or seen any fiction involving teenagers in the past couple of years, you’ll quickly figure out that there is more to Helen than meets the eye–from her home situation to the origin of her nickname to the fact that she’s cuter than any of the popular girls but she hides it well. And, of course, Coop finds himself falling for Helen even as he tries to deny his feelings and becomes more and more conflicted about his role in torturing the poor girl.

And while you can see where Coop’s final destination is, the journey to get him there is a rocky one–and at times almost painful to read. Part of the reason I didn’t care for this novel as much as Fly firmly rests at Coop’s feet. In Fly while Matt was ruled by his hormones and made bumbling decisions, at least you always had the feeling his heart was in the right place. With Coop, it takes a long stretch of the novel to get his heart into the right place–and a lot of it only comes from seeing Helen in her cross country outfit and realizing that she’s hiding under her frumpy regular exterior.

I will give Don Calame credit that once Coop starts to see Helen as more than a nickname and an impediment to his goal of getting to third base, the novel immediately becomes more reminiscent of Swim the Fly. By the end, it’s got the same heart as Fly did, though the fallout from some of Coop’s actions seems to get resolved a bit too hastily for my liking. (Helen finds out about Coop’s role in making her life miserable late in the story and too easily forgives him. It gives the the story a happy ending but it doesn’t feel like Coop has necessarily earned that happy ending).

Factor in the plotline about Coop’s dad pushing him and the band and trying to live vicariously through them again and it all adds up to a novel that isn’t quite as much as its predecessor.

But for all that, there are still flashes of what drew me to Fly here–and I’ll probably pick up the third installment in the series when it hits shelves later this year. Once Coop gets to a point that he is really conflicted and in over his head with the band and his feelngs for Helen, the novel works well. And there are some funny moments for Coop in the novel as the conflicted horn-dog tries his best to figure his way through the world of high school.

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