Without Sequel: “The Graduate”

February 1, 2009

A blog post awarded my prize for revealing what I didn’t know about myself way back when.

On the radio, Garrison Keillor says writer Charles Webb turns sixty-nine today. Webb wrote The Graduate, the book on which the 1967 movie was based. News to me is Webb’s sequel, published in January.

A little research shows Home School is a sequel in name only. Not worth reading, not worth risking the original story losing its special status. Good stories end with an ambiguous uncertainty that keeps them very much alive.

My first encounter with The Graduate was the movie starring Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock and Katherine Ross as Elaine Robinson. I didn’t read the book until I had seen the movie five times — the first with guy friends, the last four alone — before graduating from high school in 1968.

I imagined myself as Benjamin after his affair with Elaine’s mother, Anne Bancroft’s iconic Mrs. Robinson. I loved his Alfa Romeo sports car, the way he drove it balls-to-the-wall, how good he looked unshaven and disheveled, how he questioned his advantaged life, how he did whatever it took against impossible odds to win Elaine’s heart from the superficial, pretty-boy college guy.

I wanted to be Benjamin the intellectually gifted outsider, the rebel whose persona exuded a secret charm that attracted girls like Elaine. At Winter Park High in Florida, such girls were my friends but beyond my romantic reach.

The Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack made everything more resonant. I heard the songs on the car radio on the way to school. Most Fridays my senior year, my father loaned me his white  1962 MGA sports car (a generosity I’ve never adequately thanked him for). My family lived on a lake, and I floated around in the sun after school, roasting myself nut brown as Benjamin did in his parent’s swimming pool.

Looking back, I hope the story’s loftier themes seduced me, too: Benjamin’s ability to see the world differently than programmed, his willingness to defy the rules that defined adulthood, unafraid to confront the world with his peculiar and soft-spoken outrageousness.

What I remember most about The Graduate isn’t the narrative or its messages but making parts of the story my story. I liked how it made me feel in my inner life. In my head, I magically became more appealing to my friends, reaping intimacy (not just physical) from the girls and achieving higher status with the guys. I was more singular, standing out apart, and at the same time more a part of the gang.

As I write, a real-life scene streams back to me as fast as Benjamin down-shifting his Alfa Romeo: I’m driving the MG on 17-92, the main drag through Winter Park. At a stop light, two classmates — girls in my circle whom I liked more than I dared let on — pull up beside me. The MG’s top is down. So is the top of their car, a Mustang. Squinting against the sun, they smile hellos, not perfunctory but with lingering curiosity. I’m convinced they see a different me, cloaked in Benjamin’s aura.

If I see them at my forty-year reunion in September and mention the encounter, I’ll get blank stares. No matter. I lived in that moment, falsely interpreted or not. And it ended with the rest of those days.

And here I am, fifty-seven pondering a story of seventeen, reviving the moment as if blowing on an ember from a long-ago fire. In the dark it glows.