High school is a magical time. Right on the verge of adulthood, young people are taking risks, finding themselves, and making the most of their freedom before college begins. For Jon Ryan, a mid-2000s teen, the last few days of high school will be dedicated to messing around with his circle of friends and deploying legendary pranks. However, Nathan Pettijohn’s FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH doesn’t actually begin with his typical school day, but with a robbery turned deadly.
Jon Ryan (whose name is so short that he tends to get called the whole thing) has a few basic loves in life. He’s a hardcore movie buff with very specific views on remakes. He’s a burgeoning foodie, stopping the narrative on occasion to drop a meatball sub recipe or vent about the ideal cheese-to-steak ratio in a cheesesteak. Like so many students his age, he’s into some drinking, light weed smoking, and light nonsense. As the school year comes to a close and “senioritis” kicks in fully, though, Jon Ryan and his friends have one goal in mind: pull a series of legendary pranks. His friend group’s contract dictates one prank a night for four nights, recorded for posterity, with the most legendary prank chosen at the end.
The first part of FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH plays out like the turn-of-the-millennium high school comedy it is. Jon Ryan and company give their teachers some serious headaches, the faculty cracks down on them, and still the pranks continue. But looming over the story is the specter of the prologue. The pieces align bit by bit, until finally the two storylines collide (quite literally) during a llama kidnapping. From here, the story goes full tilt, swapping through multiple viewpoints. As Jon Ryan debates whether to play his own prank in light of the seriousness afoot, a pair of yakuza make their way to Tulsa to put an end to the whole nasty business. Amidst all this, as the stakes climb ever higher, Pettijohn still keeps the biggest stakes of all—being able to walk at graduation—front and center. It’s a difficult balancing act, but one he handles admirably.
The early chapters of FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH, save for the prologue, flow a little awkwardly; however, the book comes into its own as it progresses. What starts as a lack of focus in early chapters turns into a charming, convivial mode of conversation, with Jon Ryan dipping away from his high school adventures to speak passionately about what makes the perfect cheeseburger or why a certain sandwich is so good. It’s almost as though the book is finding itself as it goes on. By the middle, it’s well into its groove, and feels for all the world like a legitimate turn-of-the-millennium action-comedy film. The late addition of the two yakuza—a sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pair who comment philosophically on the nature of their job and ask, “What would Agent Cody Banks do?”—is a brilliant bit.
Equal parts coming-of-age comedy and crime thriller, Nathan Pettijohn’s FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH combines high school antics with high-stakes action in a delightful faux-memoir.
~Kara Dennison for IndieReader