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Literature / A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag

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"On registration day at taxidermy school
I distinctly saw the eyes of the stuffed moose

A 1988 YA comedy novel by Gordon Korman. Luckless, frustrated sixteen-year-old eccentric Raymond Jardine is determined to score a summer trip to Theamelpos, a Greek island legendary for bestowing good luck on visitors. He ropes Sean Delancey, his English partner, into various schemes to land them both on the island. Hilarity Ensues when they're partnered up with Ashley (a teen model they both fall for), wind up having to plan the Halloween event of the season and - most especially - when the deliberately obscure poet they've chosen for their English project turns out to have died after publishing only one poem. Meanwhile, their school has been chosen by the government as the test site for SACGEN, a revolutionary new clean energy device, but it doesn't work, leading to constant blackouts.

This work provides examples of:

  • Adults Are Useless: With the exception of Gramp, the computer teacher, and eventually some reporters, the adults in the novel refuse to believe the students when they say SACGEN breaks down every day.
  • The All-American Boy: Sean's grandfather refers to him as this, rather negatively.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Nikki Delancey, very much so—complete with classic Blackmail.
  • Appropriated Appellation: Raymond spends the entire book referring to Steve Semenski as "Cementhead", to Sean's disgust. When Steve finds out, though, he's so thrilled with the nickname that he gets it on a jacket.
  • Ask a Stupid Question...: Gramp takes this up to eleven when Mr. Delancey asks how he spent his day:
    Gramp: Well, let me see. The President needed some advice on foreign policy, so I was on the phone most of the morning. And Racquel Welch dropped over for lunch. Then we had some Indian trouble in the backyard. So I had to go on the warpath. After that, I climbed Mount Everest, swam the English Channel, and came back by pogo stick through the Adirondacks just in time to whip up a cure for the common cold right here in your kitchen. (pause) On second thought, that must have been somebody else. I sat around all day and listened to the grass grow.
  • Book Dumb: Raymond's grades are pretty abysmal, although this is seen more as a function of his notoriously rotten luck than as a direct result of his intelligence or effort.
    • Indeed, the effort we see that Raymond puts into special projects suggests that he's Brilliant, but Lazy and that if he put as much effort into honest study as he did into finding a quick, easy way to impress teachers by pretending to challenge himself, he could be a great student.
    • Ashley doesn't get good grades, but she's no idiot, being extremely savvy when it comes to networking and organizing to the point of boosting Gavin Gunhold a.k.a. Gramp to minor celebrity status.
  • Born Lucky: Steve Semenski, according to Raymond, was "born with a horseshoe up his diaper".
  • Born Unlucky: Raymond.
  • Brick Joke: At one point Raymond starts a sign-up sheet for a "fake" hockey team as a means of padding his extra-curricular activities by claiming to be the team's co-captain, figuring this is an easy way to look athletic on paper without actually doing anything since there's no other schools for their hockey team to play against. At the end of the book, a teacher officially sponsors the club and schedules the first practice for the day after Raymond's cast comes off. Raymond isn't amused.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Raymond's approach to class projects is to deliberately pick an obscure topic that the teachers are unlikely to be knowledgeable about and for which there are few study resources, with the hope they'll reward him for challenging himself. Sean notes that if Raymond would be a good student if he put half as much effort into studying as he did in trying to game the system.
    • The funny thing is Raymond's method does work to a point. Their English teacher is impressed by their decision to study an obscure poet. The only problem is Raymond's lack of research to confirm that Gavin Gunhold had written enough material to be the subject of a 30-page research paper.
    • And it it weren't for Raymond being The Jinx, it might have worked for his Government project on the structure of a foreign nation's government. Raymond chose an absolute monarchy called Pefkakia, whose entire government structure was "The king wants it? We do it." The problem was that a) Pefkakia was catapulted out of obscurity the day before the paper was due thanks to a violent revolution against the royal family and b) Raymond's paper was built around the thesis that the king was beloved by all and the system worked perfectly.
  • Butt-Monkey: Raymond.
    • To a lesser extent, Gavin Gunhold, whom we find out was a life-long gas-station attendant who was killed by a runaway street trolley, which jumped the rails and smashed through the wall of a bank while he was waiting in line to cash the check he got for his first (and only) professionally published poem.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Sean and Raymond decide to declare Steve the winner of the costume contest just for a chance to spitefully give him a lame prize, at which point Ashley tells them that a date with her will come with the prize. Raymond is so flooded with jealousy he cannot bring himself to name Steve as the winner, choking on his name multiple times before Sean comes up with an excuse to name someone else the winner.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Raymond, to a rather frightening extent. He spends a lot of his time engaging in weird tribal chanting rituals and shouting at the spirits in the sky that he's convinced are out to get him.
  • Cloudcuckoolander's Minder: According to Mindy, Sean is "the only one who can control" Raymond.
  • Clueless Chick-Magnet: Although Raymond is unaware of it, his misfortune doesn't seem to extend to the romance department, as he's got quite the female fanbase among the Freshmen ladies. When Sean tells Raymond that Sean's younger sister Nikki likes him, Raymond is stunned and can only reply that "Jardine has no luck with women." Of course, since the girl he really likes still isn't interested in him, perhaps he's right.
  • Coincidental Broadcast: Sean laughs at Jardine's claim that the island of Theamelpos is endowed with good luck. Then he opens a magazine with a story about an unemployed dockworker who got rich and married a supermodel during a vacation to Theamelpos.
  • Continuity Nod: to two other Gordan Korman works. Raymond does his government project on the fictional country of Pefkakia, the birthplace of Douglas, Dueteragonist of "The Twinkie Squad". Also, G Gavin Gunhold is the name of the fictional student invented by Bruno and Boots in "The Wizzle War". He'd later get mentions in several other books.
  • Cool Old Guy: Sean's grandfather, Patrick Delancey.
  • Cosmic Plaything: Raymond not only believes himself to be this, but frequently can be found shouting at the mysterious forces that are ruining his life.
  • Crazy Enough to Work: Sean and Raymond decide that they will have to write the poems on their own if they want to pass, and they choose a random word from the dictionary, to write a poem around it. Sean actually lampshades that the concept sounds ridiculous enough to be a Gunhold poem.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: A somewhat negative example. Engineers Sopwith and Johnson are portrayed as incompetent tools for most of the novel due to SACGEN always breaking down and needing fourteen engineers manning it in order for it to run flawlessly. But, under the watching eyes of reporters, the two of them are able to spend about an hour doing the work of those fourteen men and keeping anything from short-circuiting or causing a blackout,, while also recognizing the danger for this to cause a catastrophe and trying to warn their boss.
    Randy: I didn't know those two idiots were this good. Look at the mess they've got, and the lights are still perfect.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Raymond. Patrick Delancey ("Gramp") as well.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: While Sean and Raymond both love Ashley, she loves Steve Semenski, and by the end of the book Sean's become a Graceful Loser to the degree of bowing out of a chance to take their relationship further because he really believes that she and Steve are right for each other. It's not all bad for our heroes; by the end Sean and his ex-girlfriend Mindy might be starting to rekindle their relationship, Nikki still loves Raymond, and Raymond is very assured of romantic prospects for both of them on Theamelpos.
  • Drowning Our Romantic Sorrows: tomato juice.
  • The Eeyore: Raymond is moody and depressed about everything.
  • Fictional Country: Pefkakia - one of the world's last absolute monarchies and the subject of Raymond's failed Government project.
  • Friendship Denial: Sean is very insistent that Raymond not refer to him as a friend, even as they spend increasing amounts of time together outside of their English project (and as Raymond makes it increasingly clear that he regards Sean, not only as a friend, but as his best friend).
  • Got Me Doing It: To his frustration Sean finds he's starting to adopt Raymond's rather warped view perspective after spending time with him, even repeating his crack about Steve Semenski being born "with a horseshoe up his diaper."
  • Go-to Alias: The name "Gavin Gunhold" appears in several Gordon Korman novels in this capacity; here, it's the name of an actual (deceased) person, whom Sean's grandfather ends up impersonating.
  • Grumpy Old Man: Sean's grandfather is living with Sean and his parents very much against his will and is bored out of his mind. He livens up a lot after he becomes something of a viral sensation as "Gavin Gunhold."
  • Guile Hero: Raymond sees the world in a very antagonistic light and is constantly playing the angles to try and achieve the upper hand due to his conviction that it's what he needs to do to survive. Sean disapproves even as he finds himself increasingly thinking the same way.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Well, English-project partners who end up spending a lot more time together than intended.
  • Hidden Depths: Sean's grandfather is quite an accomplished actor, and talented with the yo-yo.
  • Hot as Hell: Ashley wears a skimpy devil costume to this effect to the costume party that has Sean half consider proposing to her on the spot.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Raymond's motivation for seeking the island of Theamelpos.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: When they're together in police custody and Sean finally fesses up to everything he's been hiding from her, he and Ashley end up kissing in a moment of high emotion. However, realizing that she's very upset as she still cares about Steve, he takes the high road and lets her off the hook, encouraging her to continue to pursue her relationship with Steve, for which she's extremely grateful.
  • Insane Equals Violent: Although Raymond never actually carries out his threats against others, even Sean is concerned that he might. Mindy O'Toole is terrified of him.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Raymond and Sean's grandfather bond almost immediately over their mutual obsession with bad weather forecasts, making it a little difficult for Sean to kick Raymond out of the house.
  • It's All About Me: Raymond thinks that the violent deaths of both the subjects of his school reports (Gavin Gunhold thirty-eight years ago when he was hit by a runaway trolley and King Phidor of Pefkakia when he was overthrown and beheaded) occurred to spite him personally.
  • The Jinx: Raymond Jardine. If something bad can happen to him, it well.
  • Last-Name Basis: Raymond always calls Sean "Delancey" and insists on being addressed as Jardine. He also likes to write his name on things (his jacket, his scooter, the door of the garage where he lives) and it's always just "JARDINE," never his first name. His mother even leaves him an answering machine message starting with, "Hello, this is Jardine's mother."
  • Lazy Bum: Danny Eckerman never lifts a finger to help with projects he's involved with.
  • Loony Friends Improve Your Personality: Sean and Raymond both.
  • Lovable Jock: Sean is a star athlete who doesn't lord over his status and is a caring friend.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Sean and Raymond both like Ashley Bach, who is more interested in Sean's former best friend Steve Semenski. Meanwhile, Sean still has some feelings for his ex-girlfriend Mindy O'Toole (who is dating Danny Eckerman), and Nikki and her two friends like Raymond.
  • Mistaken for Profound: Gavin Gunhold's poems (all but one of which were authored by Raymond and Sean, selecting words at random from a dictionary to get ideas).
  • Morality Chain: Mindy theorizes that Sean is this to Raymond.
  • My Sister Is Off-Limits: How Sean reacts to Nikki's crush on Raymond (He doesn't need to worry—Raymond isn't interested, although Raymond does go on one date with her after she blackmails them and says he had fun).
  • Never My Fault:
    • The SACGEN engineers and superintendent constantly deny that the system is flawed and blame anyone else involved for the system failing or being humiliated.
    • Sean's father's Catchphrase is "Don't blame me," which he says every time there is a disaster with one of the revolutionary new gadgets he buys.
  • Nice Guy: Steve Semenski is a good-natured person who has done nothing to deserve Raymond and Sean's resentment except be popular, lucky and liked by Ashley.
  • Nothing Exciting Ever Happens Here: The reason Sean's grandfather would rather be living in the city.
  • Oblivious to Hatred: Steve likes Raymond a lot and takes to his insulting nickname for him with gusto.
  • Odd Couple: Sean and Raymond.
  • Only Friend: Sean to Raymond, seemingly.
  • Only Sane Man: Poor Sean...
  • Pet the Dog: Sean and Raymond's English teacher reveals that he knew that Gavin Gunhold was dead, but because they did a good job with the poems, they "squeak by" with solid Cs.
  • Revenge Before Reason: In this case, Sean wants revenge against the SACGEN unit in part because it caused a power outage that resulted in Raymond breaking his ankle, even though his plan to defeat SACGEN is inevitably going to be the death of Raymond's hopes to go to Theamelpos, which is the only thing Raymond really cares about. In total fairness, it's not just about Raymond: while Sean already despised the SACGEN before this point, the incident makes it sink in for him that the cover-up the school authorities are perpetrating isn't just wrongheaded and annoying, it's actually dangerous, and that even if Raymond got off with only a minor injury, the next kid might not.
  • Running Gag: Sean's father keeps buying household techno-gadgets that end up malfunctioning spectacularly, such as a turbo-charged vacuum that sucks up 1500 dollars worth of carpet, an ultrasonic dishwasher that disintegrates dishes instead of cleaning them, and an automatic sprinkler system that floods the whole street. And he says, "Don't blame me," every time something like this happens.
  • Same Surname Means Related: Raymond initially made this assumption about Mark and Marlene Saperstein, who he refers to as "the Sap family" even after finding out that they just share a surname and happen to be boyfriend and girlfriend. It's still a valid enough description as they're obnoxiously inseparable and have apparently been engaged "since kindergarten."
  • Sarcastic Confession: Gramp gets roped into impersonating poet Gavin Gunhold, who Sean and Raymond claim to know personally, when their project partner Ashley insists on meeting him, and from there she manages to get him a TV interview that nets him still more interviews. When the rest of the Delanceys wonder what Gramp has been up to lately that's had him out of the house so much, Nikki suggests that he has a girlfriend, to which his response is "Right. I'm meeting a sixteen-year-old high school girl who thinks everything that comes out of my mouth is poetry."
  • Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!: Gramp is usually pretty mellow, but plays this up in his "Gavin Gunhold" persona, refusing to answer any of a TV interviewer's questions about his work (justified since he didn't write any of it) and insulting the interviewer's mustache as a distraction.
  • Senseless Violins: Referenced when Raymond dresses as a 1930s gangster for the Halloween dance; his costume includes a violin case with a toy gun in it.
  • Sickeningly Sweethearts: "The Sapersteins", Mark and Marlene, who have been engaged since kindergarten and plan on running a family dentistry together (they both dress up as teeth for Halloween every year). Raymond describes them in his file by saying, "Just look for two people joined at the lips."
  • Smite Me, O Mighty Smiter: Raymond continually speaks to whatever cosmic forces are messing with him, either to taunt them after he seemingly dodges a bullet or congratulating them on a well-played lightning strike.
  • Stage Name: The DJ hired for the Halloween dance goes by Zeke Decibel. His real name is Reginald Ipswich.
  • Stealing the Credit: Danny the class president is always taking credit for projects he had minimal or no involvement in, to Jardine and Sean's annoyance.
  • Suicide as Comedy: Part of the general Gallows Humor vibe associated with Raymond and his circumstances (naturally there is no actual suicide).
  • Third-Person Person: Raymond, who always refers to himself as "Jardine".
  • Those Two Girls: Nikki's friends Carita and Marilyn.
  • Throw the Dog a Bone: In the ending, the school principal wants to silence the only witnesses of SACGEN's demise while it's getting renovated. So he sends Raymond, Sean, Steven and the girl they like to Theomelpos, with nonrefundable tickets. Raymond starts crying Tears of Joy.
  • Toilet Paper Prank: Howard Newman drapes the SACGEN unit with twelve rolls of pink-flowered toilet paper and sticks it on with library paste to make it harder to remove. The principal and the SACGEN engineers frantically try to remove it all before a Popular Science crew shows up to write a story about SACGEN, but one sheet of toilet paper is still visible in the magazine's photo.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Patrick Delancey really likes prune juice.
    For him it was the elixir of life, and a glass a day gave him the right to eat all the foods his doctor, "that medical robot," said were bad for him.
  • The Unishment: Superintendant Hyatt seems honestly convinced that sending Jardine and the others on a tropical vacation everyone in school has been competing for to keep them from exposing the system's flaws is something that they will be disappointed with.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: After spending half the book wanting to kill him and insisting, "We're not friends!", Sean flips out when Raymond breaks his ankle during a power outage, insists on staying with him in the ambulance (to the point where one of the medics assumes they're brothers), and becomes determined to utterly destroy the SACGEN unit for doing this to his best friend.
  • Weirdness Magnet: Raymond. His bad luck goes beyond sheer randomness to some truly unusual extremes.
  • Your Approval Fills Me with Shame: Sean, whenever Raymond complements him.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: A minor one; after the Throw the Dog a Bone moment, Sean is convinced Raymond has no more bad luck. Then it turns out the fake hockey team they started has real practice sessions, the day after Raymond's cast comes off. Some unnatural force still has it in for Jardine.
  • Zany Scheme: Raymond's plan to score brownie points with his English teacher by deliberately choosing an obscure poet to base their project upon... and everything that follows after they find out their poet died after only have one poem published.