IN JOHN WARNER'S FIRST high school date, "Casual Dinner with Lori Victorson," we are given brief glimpses of wry, self-deprecating humor and even some encouraging signs of mid-adolescent charm. Unfortunately, these mild pleasures are buried under an avalanche of bad planning, half-sensical attempts at conversation, and an omnipresent patina of rank gooniness.
Warner actually gets off to a fairly promising start. In greeting the father and older brothers, he demonstrates solid eye contact, an engaging (though braces-marred) smile, and a firm handshake. Sadly, "Casual Dinner" descends into unintentional farce when Mr. Warner fails to check the rearview mirror upon exiting the Victorson family driveway. The precious Pico (a Pekinese) survives, but what should have been a breezy conversation about the vagaries of high school life instead turns into a formless hash of animal howls and desperate sobbing. The subsequent drive to the restaurant is mostly uneventful: Mr. Warner strangles the steering wheel while Ms. Victorson snuffles softly in the passenger seat. The dialogue is pathetic; one imagines that only a supreme act of will keeps Ms. Victorson from leaping free of the moving car.
As Mr. Warner and Ms. Victorson suffer a 45-minute wait for a table since Mr. Warner failed to make a reservation, we are treated to a kind of amateur improv that straddles a precarious balance between the banal and the bizarre.
The less said about Mr. Warner’s stab at chivalry while ordering dinner ("I’ll have the veal, and the lady will have the faffer . . . fallafer . . . bow tie pasta in cream sauce") the better. Ditto for Mr. Warner’s unfortunate encounter with his spinach salad: "Um, John, I think there’s something in your teeth. No, to the left . . . the left. Nope, other one . . . left, left, left . . . maybe you should just get a toothpick and go to the bathroom."
At the culmination of this dreadful repast, Mr. Warner, at his panicky worst, blames a missing credit card (his mother’s) on "shallow pants pockets" and, in a shocking breach of etiquette, asks Ms. Victorson if she has "any cashola on her." Ultimately, one feels some sympathy for Mr. Warner when the waitperson (rather cruelly) informs him, "Mommy says you left the card at home, and she’s on her way to take care of things." But not much. After the unmitigated disaster of dinner, Mr. Warner’s hand-on-knee attempt during the silent drive home is as implausible as it is unwelcomed by Ms. Victorson.
Perhaps Ms. Victorson goes overboard when, upon returning to school, she transfers into a different biology class so as to avoid further contact with Mr. Warner. But if one wishes to argue otherwise, that person will not get strong disagreement from this reviewer.
Reprinted from Book magazine (May/June 2002). Subscriptions: $20/yr. (6 issues) from Box 37600, Boone, IA 50037.