Too Cool to Be Forgotten
by Alex Robinson (Top Shelf, 2008)

The author of Box Office Poison and Tricked returns with a shorter-but-sweeter offering, Too Cool to Be Forgotten, a story about returning to the past to deal with some messy baggage. While it does indeed make generous use of the by-now-familiar theme of traveling back in time to the days of high school, it is not just about time travel, nor is it Peggy Sue Meets Thank You for Smoking. TCTBF manages to hold on to its integrity with a smart and surprisingly deep story that's more about making amends than it is about abusing overused, cliched plot lines.

Forty-year-old Andy Wicks, a lifelong smoker, is making one last ditch attempt to quit his unhealthy habit. On his wife's advice, he decides to try hypnotism to help him curb his craving for nicotine; however, Andy isn't simply using this technique to cure his appetite for smokes. In an attempt to pull the self-damaging habit out by its roots once and for all, Andy decides to go one step further into memory itself, revisiting actual the point in time in which he had his very first cigarette. It's a bit extreme but, as he rationalizes, this may be what's necessary to finally kill his need to light up.

As Andy enters the twilight state, however, he wakens to discover that he is, in fact, back in high school, not just mentally but physically present in 1985. Somehow, the hypnotism session has sent him so far into his subconscious that he's now in a world that's completely real, not a dream. Worse, he can't wake up, no matter how hard he tries to return to the present. Suddenly, 40-year-old Andy Wicks is now 16-year-old Andy Wicks, braces, pimples, full head of hair and all. He hasn't gone back through time to revisit a moment. He's gone back in time, with everything that's wonderful and awful about high school and teenagerhood rushing back at him with the force of a raging bull.

At first, simply trying to survive in a world in which he's completely out of his element, Andy floats along by trying to fake it, a process made more difficult by the fact that his recollection of the future is painfully intact. He can't remember his locker combination but he knows that his adorable little sister is destined to marry loser after loser, eventually ending living in near poverty in a trailer park; that one of his classmates will drop out of school because she's pregnant; that the family dog will die very shortly after being hit by a car. Every joy, every heartache, is there right in front of him in a bittersweet cascade of remembrance.

Its almost conventional time travel tropes could, on the surface of it, make the story seem like Back to the Future or Never Been Kissed, but TCTBF is more complicated than it sounds, less geared toward schmaltzy emotional uplift than in revealing the fault-lines within our complex teenage years. Andy does indeed confront the moment in his history when he tried his first cigarette, happily rejecting that first smoke. Yet he wakes up in bed the following morning still a teenager, still very confused about why he's there after resolving what he thought he'd come back to resolve.

From here the plot bends in a different direction and the story follows it. The distraction of friends, the delicate classroom dynamics and the little psychodramas of life in high school fade to the background as the true, hidden crisis finally comes to the foreground. What Andy needs to confront is not the moment in time in which he smoked that first cigarette, but the reason why he chose to do so. Hint: it wasn't really to impress the college girls who offered him one of their Cools.

It would have been easy for TCTBF to take a wrong turn into strident emotionality or whimsicality, but it is not an overwrought fantasy, not in the slightest. It is emotional, but in ways that are appropriate to the traumas we have to suffer simply because life is such a difficult place that doesn't let us choose where or when we get to say goodbye to those we love. The one thing that we are able capable of doing, is choosing how we say good-bye.

The art is as on-the-nose as the snappy dialogue and as tight as the ironies that are expertly laced into the story. Robinson understands that we don't always have control over our fate in this world. Life is not always fair. Perhaps the only way to mitigate this unhappy fact is through forgiveness. Therein lies the story's strong point, which is also its main theme: You can only accept the past, not change it. That is the true meaning of time travel.

After numerous good, bad and so-so movies about returning to high school to ameliorate the past armed with the wisdom of the present, here's hoping that a savvy filmmaker will snap up this little jewel and turn it into what could be the best "time travel" movie yet.

review by
Mary Harvey

9 May 2009

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