What's happening between Neil and Andy?
Andy Jenkins and Neil Freemount have been best friends for years. They hang out together, double-date, and help each other with homework.
But bully Charlie Cashman sets out to make life miserable for Andy, just because Andy is black. First Andy finds trash in his locker. Then his girlfriend is taunted, and he is pushed around in the school parking lot. Neil wants to help his best friend, but suddenly Andy turns against him, and Neil doesn't know why. The two boys are about to face the greatest challenge of their lives. Can their friendship survive the test?
Hello and welcome to a very special installment of Sweet Valley High. Today the Wakefields will tackle race relations with the subtlety and nuance you would expect from them in a book from 1990. Get your coping methods handy because holy Christ are we gonna need them. I refuse to count how many times I scribbled "wtf" or "JFC!" in my notebook because after awhile I just couldn't handle it and stopped writing it, but still thought it. Or said it, loudly, to the cat.
There are fun SVH books, there are bad SVH books, and there are some books that are so bad they're good. And then you've got the books I'm not sure anyone re-reads for fun and that, I think, is where Friend Against Friend falls in the SVH canon.
I mean, I wish we could've just had an entire post where the jokes write themselves, as many a comment has been made about the cover art and the text underneath, particularly when combined with this being book #69. But alas, this book wants us to have no fun and instead wants to make things as painful as humanly possible.
So take a moment and wish for what could have been and then grab your drinks and follow me into Hell.
Despite what the back cover tells you, Andy and Neil have not been best friends for years. In fact, it's implied heavily that they only became close once they were paired up as marine biology lab partners, which would mean their friendship started this year/semester. Pity, as I'd like the idea of them being friends since Andy moved to SV more. But it would also make the big WTF moment that much less believable so, y'know, I guess.
Anyway, Andy and Neil are friends and science geek bros together. Huzzah! They go on double dates and make boring jokes together and all is well until they stop by Andy's locker and find it filled with trash and a note scribbled on the locker door: Go Back to Africa Where You Belong. And then we're painfully reminded that Andy is one of the only black students at SVH and Neil is very white. What could go wrong?
Neil wants to report the incident but Andy refuses, claiming that doing so will only incite the racist to up their game. Neil's not exactly sure how true this is, but it is Andy's call so he goes along with it... though he does tell his girlfriend, Penny Ayala. I'm surprised that Penny doesn't push for this to be covered in The Oracle or told to the authorities, though she does mention both as options. She agrees with Andy that odds are good that if anything is made of the incident, it'll get worse.
But ignoring it will totally make things better, right? Sigh. It's a long one, folks.
Complicating matters for Neil is the fact that his father and Charlie Cashman's father are friends. At first we're not sure if Mr. Cashman is the only bigot in the relationship or if Mr. Freemount is as well, but don't worry. We'll get that answered all too well and it will make me want to throw the book across the room. (So uh, spoilers? Freemount is possibly worse because he hides his racism better.) Neil calls his father out on some "questionable" comments made during the BBQ and we're left to wonder why, exactly, Neil's mother hasn't left his father because she seems to be taking absolutely no BS when it comes to the men's bitching about affirmative action. Carol, honey, I don't know you all that well, but you and Marge should get the hell out of these relationships. Neither of these men is worth the trouble.
Back at school, Andy wins a summer scholarship at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the peasants rejoice! After a quick trip to the DB to celebrate, Charlie confronts Andy and is a racist prick because duh and also he has three idiots backing him up. The girls come out a few minutes later and we find out that someone has slashed Tracy's tires. I wonder who that could be, hmm? Couldn't be Charlie Cashman, right? Oh. Wait.
Andy stays with Tracy's car and Neil takes Tracy to work and then takes Penny home. Not sure why he didn't go back to the DB and hang out with Andy but whatever, I don't write these things. The next day, Andy is pissed that he's out more than $45 and time and in a critical mistake that I visibly cringed as I read it, Neil tries to smooth things over by invoking MLK. Andy reacts about as well as you'd expect: Who do you think you are? Don't talk to me about Dr. King!"
I mean, we can't say that SVH didn't try to warn us all way back when.
Eventually we find out that Andy doesn't want to report the incidents because when similar things happened back in junior high, he was told to ignore them and not to cause trouble. So... despite being pissed at this being the advice and help given, that's exactly what you're doing? I mean... that's showing them, I guess? I get that it's more about not wanting to be let down again by the adults in the situation but the way it's written doesn't drive that home or point out the flaw in his plan.
Anyway, Neil's resentment of Andy builds the more Andy pushes him away and especially when Andy says that he doesn't need help from any white person. How dare Andy not let Neil be his white savior? I dunno, I feel weird being overly snarky about this because I get where Andy is meant to be coming from and I also get where Neil is coming from - up to a point. But when Charlie Cashman shows up at Neil's house because things at his house are going to shit and Charlie suggests going cruising, Neil saying yes is just mind-blowingly stupid.
This guy isn't just someone you think is behind the racist attacks on your friend, possibly your best friend (Neil's literally not shown hanging out with any other guy besides Charlie and Andy)- he's outed himself proudly to you and your friend. You don't hang out with him, no matter how badly you feel for him due to his home life. If he needs to be saved, he can go to Saint Elizabeth of Wakefield like everyone else in Sweet Valley. If he doesn't need to be saved, well, you should definitely not be out cruising with this asshole, Neil.
Naturally, Charlie views this as them being friends so the next day he invites Neil to hang again and Andy's not exactly thrilled to see his friend hanging out with a known racist. Go figure. Neil and Andy have a bit of a tiff about this and things are so tense that Neil blows his marine bio quiz the next day.
That same day, Charlie trips Andy and sends his books flying all over the floor. Andy's sick and tired of this and tackles Charlie until Mr. Collins breaks the fight up. For reasons I don't fully understand, Collins singles Neil out after sending Charlie down to see Chrome Dome. Wouldn't talking to Andy be the first step, then talking to Neil? Whatever. In an effort to patch their friendship, Neil makes one last attempt to hang out with Andy who turns him down because he doesn't need Neil's pity.
This is where the book suffers. There's realism and there's having to play by the rules of fiction, since fiction has to make narrative sense (usually) while reality does not. And while I get that Andy is the one being singled out, the one worrying about his own safety as well as Tracy's and possibly both of their families as well, Neil never seems to grasp that this extends beyond Andy being kind of a dick to him. And also, well, Andy's a dick to Neil for a good chunk of the book, even before Neil's earned it. Which is done so that Neil's irritation, annoyance, and hurt will lead us to the events that unfold after Neil and Penny ditch their movie early.
They head to Neil's car, which he always parks in the back parking lot of the mall because it's less crowded and he can always get a good spot. They see a group of guys looking ready to rumble, so Neil sends Penny back in to call the cops while he runs down to see what's going on.
Neil. Honey. Babycakes. As soon as you recognize Andy's father's car, you know what's happening. You know Charlie and company are going to jump Andy and kick his ass. And they do. They drag his ass out of his car and by the time Neil gets his ass in gear they've already pretty much knocked Andy out. Which is why Andy does not remember this next part.
Charlie goads Neil into taking part in Andy's assault. Neil actually falls for it and slugs Andy once, before he's so horrified by his actions that he fucking runs away, hops in his car, and flees the scene of the crime, not only leaving his best friend to whatever beating Charlie's group wants to dish out, but also leaving Penny stranded.
But I'm supposed to feel bad for him because he's traumatized by what he's done and he has to pull the car over to puke. Goddammit, Neil, I want to puke, too. You were supposed to kick Charlie's ass, maybe get yours handed to you because it's four against one (or two, but Andy's out of it so I'm not saying he'd be any help to Neil) and basically not be a piece of shit.
Nope. NOPE. NOPE!
Because the plot needs Andy to think that Neil came to his rescue beyond having Penny call the cops, and we need Penny to think something similar though where does she think Neil disappeared to after "going to get help, too"? We need Neil to feel literally sick about what he's done and hole himself up in his room all weekend. We need him to torture himself as he worries about the cops appearing and then, what we need most of all, besides Charlie threatening to turn Neil in, is for Neil's dad to take him to a USC game and at halftime tell him that Mr. Cashman called and told him what Neil did.
And while it wasn't the best thing ever to kick a man when he's down, at least he knows Neil's heart was in the right place and that Andy learned his lesson. I'd say let that sink in but no, don't. Let me point out that he knew what Neil did before he bought the tickets to the football game. He bought them as a reward for Neil beating up his best friend.
Neil goes into shock as he realizes his father is a terrible excuse for a human being. When they return to SV, he demands to be let out of the car. Mr. Freemount realizes that Neil's disgusted by him (I'm not sure I'd buy the man being capable of that much self awareness) and sneers that Neil is no better than anyone else and not to go around being all high and mighty. Lord, give me strength.
Neil goes to Andy's to apologize only to realize that Andy doesn't know that Neil took a swing at him. Unable to confess while Andy's parents keep popping in to thank Neil for helping save Andy, Neil ducks out again.
Neil keeps trying to confess and then chickening out, though he really picks it up when Charlie tries to recruit him after Andy comes back to school. Realizing that Andy's more popular than ever after the attack, Charlie thinks he needs another to really show Andy what's what, and he wants Neil in on this one, too. Neil tells him to go fuck himself (not literally, unfortunately) and that's when Charlie threatens to put in a tip, anonymously of course, to the cops about Neil's involvement in Andy's attack.
Remember Andy's scholarship win? Well, there's an awards ceremony and Andy doesn't want anything to mar his day because he'd like this win to be an absolute win for him. So Neil doesn't confess prior because it would hurt Andy to do so.
But he doesn't think twice about telling him right after his win. We need to talk about a lot of things, Freemount, but timing is definitely near the top of the list, young man.
Andy and Penny both want nothing to do with Neil and honestly? I don't blame them. And I get that Penny doesn't really have all that many dating options but I absolutely do not see her staying with Neil after this. Unable to be around people after his confession goes about as well as he expected, Neil heads out to his car and winds up just sitting there, stunned and sick.
Eventually Elizabeth finds him and of course Penny has told her what's happened. Liz isn't on Neil's side but she lets him know that it's possible Penny might forgive him, and also maybe the important thing isn't to deny the existence of the side of him that took a swing at his friend, but to admit it was there and to make sure that it doesn't happen again. He can't change the past but he can absolutely change his reactions in the future. Liz is nicer than most would be but doesn't completely absolve him of his sins and I do appreciate that.
On his drive by the school a little later, he notices Andy walking across the football field... as Charlie and company are heading towards him. Neil hops out of the car and joins Andy, telling Charlie that if he wants to get to Andy, he'll have to take on Neil, too. I... don't think I buy that Charlie and his goons couldn't take a still wounded Andy and Neil, but I get not wanting to end the book on them going to the hospital. Instead Andy points out that this doesn't mean they're friends and Neil knows it. He says he'll spend the rest of his life sorry for what he did and that he'll always be by Andy's side when someone is threatening him, whether Andy wants him there or not. Which is... you know, I'm not sure I have the words so it is what it is.
Penny eventually sort of forgives Neil, though she says it's not her place to forgive him, but I still can't see Penny getting over this.
But what about a B-plot, you ask. Well, Liz gets the scathingly brilliant idea to have The Oracle put out a question to the general SVH audience: If you could change anything at SVH, what would it be?
Liz figures it'll be a bunch of silly answers, like less classes and more vending machines but it turns out that SVH isn't the idyllic paradise Liz envisioned it to be. What? You mean the school where a girl was bullied to the point that she developed a
Penny and at least one other person want to get rid of PBA, Dana wants less time, money, and attention spent on the boy's sports, someone thinks it's unfair that a girl can't play for the varsity football team, Manuel Lopez wants the history classes to stop skipping the part where the Spanish founded California and oh yeah, some asshats want every "non-American" to be kicked out. Sweet baby Jesus, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Technically the Light Eyes sociology experiment is probably more part of the A plot but it loops in Jessica so it's more B-plot. Anyway, since this book came out before SVT's It Can't Happen Here, Jessica reacts to the brown eyed students being able to treat her and all the other "light eyes" like trash like it's her first time being discriminated against. Ironically, Amy seems to be one of the first to really catch on to what's going on, while Jessica doesn't fully grasp that if everyone is discriminated against it's not discrimination.
Winston admits that he initially thought he wouldn't want to be mean to "the light-eyes" but found himself getting into it the longer the class went on. His girlfriend, Maria, however, jumped right the fuck in. I'm guessing she's still got some processing to do given how shittily people treated her not too long ago.
The book ends with a set-up for Claire Middleton stepping out of the shadows to take on Ken for quarterback of the football team after Scott Trost is found to be failing two of his classes. Dun-dun-DUN.
- Jessica claims to be on a diet which is why she skipped lunch. Minutes after telling Liz this, she hits her up for 50 cents to get a candy bar or something.
- Elizabeth calls Penny "Pen."
- The Oracle's survey question: If you could change anything at Sweet Valley High, what would it be? Liz expects most of the answers to be fluffy but it turns out there's a fair amount of unrest bubbling under the surface.
- Neil Freemount is tall, blonde, and good looking. He takes Marine Biology and is lab partners with Andy Jenkins, a pairing that led to them becoming good friends. His older brother Gary is a freshman at UCLA. Neil plays soccer and tennis but not football.
- Neil and Penny are apparently one of Elizabeth's favorite couples at SVH.
- Andy Jenkins is one of the best science students at SVH, has won certificates of merit in biology and chemistry, as well as the county science fair twice. He's described as easy going and friendly, plays the French horn, and is a guitarist in Baja Beat which we know he founded courtesy of the last book. He's also one of the few black students at SVH.
- Penny would abolish PBA and Elizabeth is surprised by this. Penny and Olivia both feel it's an exclusivity thing that brings out the worst in people. Another Oracle reader will submit a similar response, though they'll point out that it's not fair that PBA members are the ones heading all the social committees and then mentions they don't think there should be any club that gets to decide whether people are in or out based on how they dress or whether or not they have a boyfriend.
- Olivia jokes she'd cut the school week down to three days and outlaw homework. Remember when Olivia would've answered super seriously and not made a joke?
- Dana would have less attention on boy's sports.
- Manuel Lopez would change the way history is taught, particularly emphasizing the fact that the Spanish discovered California and how this is glossed over.
- Someone wants it to be possible for girls to play on boys sports, particularly having a girl QB. Penny leaves Liz a note to find out who this author is so they can put it in the Eyes and Ears column.
- Another asshat wants everyone who isn't a "real American" kicked out. Specifically blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. Penny is disgusted and balls this letter up.
- Andy and Neil find out during their marine biology lab that the water in the marina is gross. Neil admits that he's so disturbed by the idea of what people are pumping into the water that he doesn't like swimming in the ocean. Andy promptly invites him to the beach. :P
- Neil turns down the invite to the beach because his family is having the Cashmans over for a BBQ and Neil's expected to be there. Charlie, btw, does not show up to this.
- After the lab, Andy finds his locker has been filled with trash and someone has written Go Back To Africa Where You Belong on the inside of his locker door.
- Penny's hair is described as dark blonde and she's got hazel eyes.
- Paul Freemount and Frank Cashman both work at Patman Canning on the outskirts of Sweet Valley. Gotta admit, I thought for sure with how quickly this was mentioned after the marina water issue that we'd find out that Patman Canning was up to no good. Turns out that both Paul and Frank believe Willis, their new boss, got promoted due to nothing more than affirmative action and both resent him to varying degrees. Frank's more of an overt ass and Paul tries to back peddle when his wife and son both call him out on his BS.
- Willis is a stickler for punctuality and Cashman apparently sees nothing wrong with showing up 15 minutes late to his shift. It will not surprise you to learn that Cashman gets fired within two weeks of admitting this.
- Neil is so ashamed of his father's behavior that he hides out for most of the rest of the weekend and still feels weird on Monday when he and Andy see each other again.
- John Archer is the marine biology teacher. He's always making big announcements before class officially starts.
- Andy won the Monterey Bay Aquarium Scholarship for Outstanding Achievements in Life Sciences.
- Liz has lunch with Enid, Todd, Aaron, Dana, Manuel, Sandy Bacon, Jade Wu, Ken, and John Pfieffer.
- Tracy works at a toy store in the mall.
- At the DB, two Diet Cokes and two Cokes are ordered and I'm hoping one of those Diet Cokes is for one of the boys because I will never not be tired by the whole "girls drink diet drinks and boys don't, tee hee" trope.
- Charlie Cashman drives a beat up blue Camero.
- He also hangs out with Jerry "Crunch" McAllister and SVH seniors Jim Sturbridge and Ron Reese.
- Charlie and possibly his cronies slashed all four tires on Tracy's car.
- It cost Andy $45 to tow Tracy's car to the tire place. He then had to bum a ride home, borrow money from his mom, and get back to the tire place only to be told they couldn't do the work til the next morning. In case you wondered, that's like $88 today.
- Neil tries to calm Andy down by invoking the ever popular "what would MLK do/say" and Andy goes OFF.
- Turns out that similar stunts were pulled when Andy was in junior high and when he told the school about it, their big help was to ignore the idiots and not cause trouble.
- Charlie shows up after his father goes on a tear at home and for whatever reason chooses Neil to try and hang out with... and Neil goes with him.
- They wind up at Chrome Dome's house, where Charlie leans on the horn for a good ten seconds, lets loose a wolf howl, and speeds off. This is repeated at various houses around SV and neither Neil nor I are terribly impressed. Neil wonders at the end of the evening why the hell he would've gone off with Charlie, even if he did temporarily feel sorry for the guy.
- Chrome Dome lives in a small brick house, btw.
- The same day Andy gets tripped by Charlie, Neil invites Andy and Tracy to the movies for a double date with Penny. Andy declines but still winds up at the mall anyway.
- Neil usually parks in the back of the mall because the parking lot there is less crowded and he's more likely to get a spot by the entrance.
- Neil and Penny leave the movie early because Neil's gotten himself all worked up over Andy not treating him like much of a friend and when they hit the parking lot they see a group of guys advancing on a car. Neil sends Penny back in to call the cops while he runs to help.
- When Neil recognizes the car as Andy's father's, he freezes. This gives Charlie and co time to drag Andy from the car and proceed to beat him into unconsciousness before Neil reaches them.
- Andy refuses to stay in the hospital even though he's been beaten pretty badly. He also can't/won't tell the cops who beat him up, though he genuinely doesn't know Neil took a shot.
- Penny spends the weekend trying to get ahold of Neil who left her behind in his hurry to run far away. She assumed he went to get help, too.
- Jessica starts a petition to denounce the attack and to show that the students of SVH are on Andy's side. Penny is the first to sign.
- Jessica and Liz apparently only share Chemistry and French classes.
- Jess takes sociology along with Cara, Amy, Winston, Maria Santelli, and Ken.
- Ms. Jacobi teaches sociology.
- Ms. Jacobi ends the Light Eyes Experiment with five minutes left in class so they can discuss what just happened.
- Winston, one of the dark eyes, thought he wouldn't want to be mean but he got into it and that freaks him out.
- Neil's father treats him to a USC football game and during halftime congratulates his son on beating Andy up.
- Andy's mother is a night owl.
- Aaron thinks that "girls get all the breaks. Always!" Aaron Dallas is a tool.
- Ken doesn't think girls should play football but Olivia has him agree that a girl could be a good sprinter, good at strategy, and oh yes, good at throwing the ball... what more does a QB need? Ken's unable to come up with a good reply to that.
- Neil confesses his part in Andy's attack at lunch right after the awards ceremony. He waits until everyone else leaves except for Penny and Andy.
- Andy leaves without a word.
- After confessing, Neil winds up in his car, just staring off into space where Liz finds him when she heads off to take the galleys to the printer (skipping study hall) and she offers a bit of advice.
- Neil's driving by the school again later once school has let out and sees Andy and his horn crossing the football field as Charlie and his goons are approaching from the other side.
- Crunch McAllister is the one to talk Charlie down from the beating.
- Scott Trost is failing two of his classes and is about to be suspended from the football team, leaving Penny and Liz to wonder whether mystery girl will try out and if so, how it'll go since everyone just assumed Ken would take back his place on the team when he was fully healed.
Elizabeth, her identical twin sister, was not overly concerned. Jessica made an average of six melodramatic statements every day. - We start off so strong and it goes so quickly off the rails, p1
"What is this stuff, anyway?" Neil joked. He held up a bottle of slimy-looking liquid. "I don't even want to say what this looks like." - Oh, please, enlighten us, Neil. p7
Neil looked away. "Haven't you ever done something you wish you hadn't?" he asked in a low voice. "Something that made you hate yourself?" p127
Race Relations at SVH:
"I heard you got picked out for a special prize because you're black."
Andy's jaw muscles tensed. "I heard it was because I earned it." - fuck off, Cashman. p31
He groped for the right words but couldn't seem to find them. "Think-think of how Martin Luther King, Jr., would react to a situation like this-"
"Who do you think you are?" Andy gasped. "Don't talk to me about Dr. King!" - don't do it, Neil. Just don't fucking do it. p38
Andy's been treating me like dirt, he thought indignantly. He thinks he's better than anyone. He acts like since he's black, everyone else is wrong, never him. - With friends like these... p76
"Listen, about the way I've been acting lately. I've been lying here thinking, and I realized that jerk Charlie got me so confused I was being as much of a racist as he was. I know we're friends and I was a fool not to appreciate you. It doesn't matter what color either of us is." - Words, I don't have them, Andy. p100
Liz Muses on Important Issues:
"Don't you feel like some people get more privileges than other people, just because of who they are?" she asked her sister. -baby's first brush with white privilege as a concept.
"So in other words, people who are good looking and rich get extra, is that what you're saying?" Elizabeth demanded hotly. - by George, I think she's got it. p46
"Didn't it ever occur to you that if we're fortunate, that means we have a responsibility to make sure other people are treated fairly?" - We have a winner, folks! p47
"We should also have some kind of racism awareness program," she mused. "I think it's really important. Most racism isn't even as obvious as beating someone up." p86
Elizabeth felt a surge of warmth when she looked at her friends. They all wanted to reassure Andy that they liked him. And it wasn't just because of his race. That would be reverse discrimination, which would be just as bad. - Sweet mother of mercy, I still don't have the words. p109
Basically this is the book where almost every dude comes across as an ass. Neil? Duh. Andy? Yup. Charlie? Was there any doubt? But the B plot takes out Aaron, which wasn't that hard, honestly. Ken's kinda terrible when confronted about how boy's sports get way more attention than girl's and how a girl QB wouldn't be the worst thing ever and even Todd's .04 seconds of screen time doesn't keep him from putting his foot in his mouth either.
It also has a weird cafeteria moment where characters we really haven't seen since their B-list spotlight books appear to just be hanging out with Liz and company like it's a normal thing. How often do you remember me mentioning Liz having lunch with Manuel and Sandy? And Jade Wu, who is always referred to as Jade Wu? Yeah. I thought so. It's just weird and like the powers that be had to point out that we do have a couple of non-white students roaming the halls of SVH.
I feel like they tried with this, but it comes across as very After School Special and that's pretty much never a compliment. Liz gets some good lines but they're essentially buried under an entire book of cringe and nothing you can say is going to have me believe that Andy's going to say that him being a dick to Neil was being just as much of a racist as Charlie. Just... no.
Also, you know who is conspicuously absent? Lila. That's probably for the best as her track record ain't great. It's why Jessica's reactions ring kind of hollow. On the one hand, I cheer when Jess is the first person to suggest a petition to support Andy and denounce his attackers, but on the other... Jessica, you and Lila got away with a lot at the start of the series.
Ultimately, there are some things I think the book manages to get right and then, well... bless its little heart, but it tries and fails in a lot of the ways you imagine, though not all of them.
I leave you with an image I suspect will haunt Neil for quite a long time.
Andy looked away. He looked tired and sad and most of all, alone. "Why's it so hard?"