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Sweaty palms and all: Teen adventure resonates charm

Denis Cooverman is a skinny ball of anxiety with hyperactive sweat glands. He's the smartest kid at Buffalo Grove High School. He's on the fast track to medical school, can calculate pi using two different algebraic formulas, captained the debate team to the state championship, and can speak fluent Klingon (and a few lesser known Star Trek-derived languages).

And he used his valedictory speech to publicly profess his undying love to Beth Cooper, the head cheerleader that fate and the alphabet conspired to place in the seat in front of his throughout his high school career.

Only, other than a borrowed pencil here and there, Beth Cooper barely knows Denis is alive.

Larry Doyle is a former editor with Spy and New York magazines who jumped ship to write for "Beavis and Butt-head" and "The Simpsons," where he honed his comic chops. In "I Love You, Beth Cooper," Doyle showcases that comic flair, opening with the fateful graduation day speech that promises to change Cooverman's life (for once, people will actually notice him, for one thing) and follows the topsy-turvy 24 hours that follow, a period that includes several beatings at the hands of Beth's Cro-Magnon boyfriend, the execution of at least 11 crimes (both felonies and misdemeanors), and Cooverman's first exposure to alcohol, breaking curfew, and -- yes -- breasts. Female breasts.

Doyle's story is typical teen movie fare -- think "The Breakfast Club" meets "Lucas" meets "The Girl Next Door" meets "Sixteen Candles" meets "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" meets "Napoleon Dynamite" meets "Three O'Clock High" meets "Dazed and Confused." And that's barely the tip of the iceberg. Nerdy guy falls hard for super hot girl. Super hot girl's pity turns into something like attraction, which culminates with an awkwardly sweet kiss, followed by a treacly message about inner beauty and clique-breaking. You know -- where the comic relief -- provided in this case by Denis' wisecracking ambiguously gay cinephile best friend (the unfortunately named Rich Munsch), a misunderstood kid usually played by Jon Cryer, starts the slow clap that grows into a lusty ovation and the whole prom starts swaying to Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule The World."

Thankfully, Doyle is hip enough to know the territory, cleverly sidestepping some cliches while reworking others. He even gives a tip of the cap to those teen movies at the start of each chapter, including quotes from a veritable Internet Movie Database of teen flicks. Doyle manages to be both sweet and a bit obscene, delivering his sweat-soaked protagonist out of academia and into a teenage wasteland inhabited by drunken cheerleaders, emotionally unstable bullies, and high school graduates on their way to community college. As far as Cooverman is concerned, this world might as well be Zenn-La (home planet of The Silver Surfer, in case you didn't know -- and no one faults you for not knowing that).

In most of those teen love stories, the object of the nerd's desire always either has a heart of gold or turns out to be too superficial for him, in which case the nerd realizes that the girl of his dreams was his biology lab partner, the frump who removes her glasses and magically transforms from Janeane Garofalo into Scarlett Johansson. Doyle turns the teen angel into a fully flushed out character, one who's willing to commit certain un-dainty acts to score a 12-pack of beer, yet has achieved a certain existential enlightenment on how graduating from the well-ordered social order of high school will change her life -- and not for the better. Turns out Beth Cooper is more three-dimensional than the massive poster Denis lovingly enlarged and hung over his bed, shrine-style.

"I Love You Beth Cooper" is hip and hysterical, the kind of degenerative chaos theory of a comedy that could only be written by a writer who genuinely understands the high school experience, both from the awkward and stumbling perspective of a Denis Cooverman and from the lofty perspective of the "in crowd."

Doyle has written a fun, teen coming-of-age story that never takes itself too seriously, but resonates with genuine charm. It is, I think, must reading for any teenager, or anyone who has ever been a teenager.

Dan Murphy is a local freelance writer.

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I Love You, Beth Cooper:A Novel

By Larry Doyle

HarperCollins, 272 pages, $22.95

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