'Total' Adolescence in a Suburban High School

A reporter sensitively, but realistically, chronicles one year in the life of a group of teenagers

COMING OF AGE By G. Wayne Miller Random House, 245 pp.,$22 THERE was a period during my high school years when my father ceased referring to me by my given name and began calling me ''that eating and sleeping bundle of male hormones.'' At the time, I thought it was an appropriate description. And I still do, with one reservation. It is easy for us to laugh at our high school days, and at the minor events that assumed enormous proportions in our young minds. But it is more important to remember that those were the crucial years in our development into mature, thinking adults - if that is what we have become. Again quoting my father, high school was the critical time in our ''evolution into more civilized forms.'' In his latest book, ''Coming of Age: The True Adventures of Two American Teens,'' G. Wayne Miller delves into the lives of two high school students to explore just what that process of maturation, or ''evolution,'' means in the 1990s. ''Coming of Age'' is a serious journalistic undertaking. Miller, an award-winning journalist for the the Providence Journal-Bulletin and author of two previous books, spent a full year in the high school trenches: the classrooms, gyms, and principals' offices; the parties and proms; the shopping malls; even the emotional world of secret diaries. Like the students he followed, he struggled for acceptance in the adolescent community so that he might get the inside story on modern teenage life. And it looks like he got it, or as much of it as he could in a single case-study of this kind. ''Coming of Age'' focuses on the lives of Dave Bettencourt, a senior at Burrillville High School in Burrillville, R.I., and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Beth Sunn, from nearby North Smithfield. Perhaps many of the students at Burrillville High would have been interesting subjects for this book. But Dave and Beth are particularly well chosen to bear the weight of ''Coming of Age's'' fast-paced 245 pages. In a homogenous suburban setting, where it might be less troublesome to simply blend in with the surroundings, Dave and Beth actively carve out their own niches. They want to stand out, and they succeed, sometimes against the wishes of their parents and teachers. Early on, Beth is a creature of the latest fads. She is a petite girl with an angelic face and teased hair, speaking a modified street language that seems out of place in suburbia. But first impressions can be deceiving. By the end of the book, after a year of school has elapsed, we come to admire Beth for her unflinching loyalty to the people she loves and are gratified to have witnessed her development into a more confident young adult. She abandons her attention-grabbing wardrobe and even begins to speak a dialect of English that her parents can recognize, if not fully understand. Dave takes a different route on his way to self-definition. With a quick mind and an advanced sense of humor, he actively campaigns for the distinction of class clown. He works hard for a starting position on the basketball team. And then there is Total Godhead, the underground humor magazine he co-founds to shake his school out of what he considers its humorless and unimaginative lethargy. Total Godhead, named after an obscure song by the grunge-rock band Nirvana, is the perfect outlet for Dave's creative energies. Inspired by the humor of Monty Python, it is often a cross between a serious sociopolitical satire and the pure shock value of radio personality Howard Stern. With columns such as '''Assassin's Corner' - I don't want to kill everyone. Just the people I don't like.'' - it is not surprising that Total Godhead incurs the wrath of a large portion of the Burrillville High community. Indeed, Dave's negotiations with the high school faculty and the student body over the publication of his magazine make up the major conflicts in ''Coming of Age.'' Through these conflicts, we are introduced to the adult influences in Dave's life: his parents, his high school principal, Steve Mitchell - called ''Chief'' for his native American heritage, and Mary Lee Drouin, Dave's free-thinking English teacher who moonlights as a singer in a New England folk band, Pendragon. And it is through Total Godhead that we observe Dave and his friends reacting to the multitude of new and old problems of 1990s society: alcohol, drugs, violence, sexual politics, boredom. Miller is most effective when he writes as a mature and objective observer, leaving the kids to speak for themselves. His occasional forays into the slang of the high school students - ''It was so dope!'' - are less effective. But for the most part, he captures the legitimate feelings of the younger generation, often humorously, but without trivializing their importance. Aside from the scatological humor of Total Godhead, there is very little shocking material and nothing scandalous in ''Coming of Age.'' Miller's book will not inspire a new TV mini-series or generate a discussion topic on the next edition of Geraldo. But he has provided a respite from the rampant pessimism of this ''golden'' age of television talk shows - an upbeat story of adolescents who live in a tough world, experience their own failures, but survive and achieve their first major successes. In the final analysis, he has given us a book that underscores the importance of our high school years as years of self-discovery and, yes Dad, even ''evolution.''

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