Zuke is a freshman at a small Christian college when he meets Abby, the Diane Court to his Lloyd Dobler. She’s beautiful, funny, charismatic — and dating Pison Nazarene College’s star basketball player. Which ain’t Zuke, by the way.
It’s the early ’90s in small-town USA, and Zuke is tackling romantic entanglements alongside the classic family- and school-related ones. With a crew of goofy but well-meaning friends, the so-called Brothers In Pursuit, Zuke pursues Abby only to discover that love isn’t always how it appears in the movies.
William Torgerson’s Love On The Big Screen is a fun, nostalgic love story — from the dudes’ perspective. Zuke’s best friends — a group of guys with funny nicknames like “The Dini” and “Cowboy” — are all searching for the same ideals: “God, knowledge, compassion and women.” I didn’t realize the novel has a religious bent until a few chapters in, but no matter. Torgerson was never preachy or overt with the boys’ explorations of faith. In fact, I found it rather interesting.
Our main fella here is Eric “Zuke” Zaucha, the son of a sports fanatic who chooses his small school for its basketball team. Always one to adapt for women, seeing Abby on the first day of classes presses Zuke to declare himself an English major — the better to study near her book-loving self, you see. As a devotee of classic ’80s films like “Say Anything” and “Sixteen Candles,” Zuke is waiting for his own great cinematic love story to unfold. (And if John Hughes were to direct it, all the better.) Convinced his own romantic life will mimic what he sees on the big screen, he befriends Abby . . . even though there’s a big ol’ beefy boyfriend to contend with.
Torgerson’s strength lies in evoking a very specific era: late ’80s America. Though I was too young to enjoy Lloyd Dobler’s boombox declaration to Diane Court in its heyday, who hasn’t heard “In Your Eyes” and imagined John Cusack out there with his battered heart on his sleeve?
When it comes to feeding readers bits of tasty nostalgia, Love On the Big Screen delivers. The numerous pop culture references had me smiling, and I’d imagine anyone who came of age in this time will find lots to bring back memories. Torgerson isn’t obnoxious about it, though; it’s not like every single person is clad in head-to-toe acid-washed denim. Though set in a specific time, the boys’ individual stories feel pretty universal — and it’s easy to forget we’re not dealing with a modern-day love triangle. Until a guy calls only to get his lady’s roommate, who “forgets” to give her a message on his behalf. And then you think, Oh yeah: no cell phones. No email. No texting.
Where the story flounders a bit concerns Torgerson’s penchant for giving every character in the book a nickname. As Melissa notes, keeping everyone straight requires learning both the gentleman’s actual name and the random one he’s been given by the Brothers. The love interests all have nicknames, too, so they can discuss be discussed in public. And while I initially found this cute, the constant whiplash of trying to decipher who is who got to be too much.
The dudes beyond Zuke didn’t make much of a lasting impression. We have one gay character who comes out to his friends through the course of the book, and The Dini had some potential, but I never felt like I got to know anyone outside Zuke, Abby and Marie, another erstwhile love interest. I wanted to know more about the Brothers and wished their friendship had been explored further. For me, the major appeal of Love On the Big Screen was the idea of an ’80s-era romantic comedy told from a man’s perspective. And while the book didn’t fail in that regard, I guess I just wanted a little more.
BUT. But. I don’t want to leave the impression I didn’t enjoy Torgerson’s work; I really did. It’s cute, fun and light, and it easily held my attention over 214 pages. I loved the setting, the era and the boundless appeal of an underdog like Zuke — and I think the novel would appeal to folks who enjoy contemporary stories with a heaping side of nostalgic whimsy. On that front, this coming-of-age novel delivers.
3.5 out of 5!