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'Searching For John Hughes,' And Finding Yourself

The elusive dream of adolescent empowerment has been with us for at least as long as we've had Clearasil or wedgies. Tweens, teens, and everyone in between have enough wherewithal to know what they want, but not enough agency in their own lives to get it. And director John Hughes tapped into that youthful anxiety perhaps better than anyone in the history of Hollywood. Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Weird Science, The Breakfast Club, Home Alone and his other early films all gave a voice to those caught in the age old battle between us and them.

Hughes spoke directly to the hopes, fears and impotence of disaffected suburban kids of my generation, and Jason Diamond, author of the memoir Searching For John Hughes, is no exception. Diamond grew up in the same Chicago suburbs that Hughes mined for inspiration, even if Diamond's upbringing was less idyllic than that of the McCallister family. His emotionally and physically abusive father makes Cameron's old man look like dad of the year. As for his mom, she throws up her hands and leaves him to fend for himself when he's still a teenager. He has no one. No one, that is, except John Hughes.

Somewhere along the line, as he tells it, Diamond decides he wants to move to New York and become a professional writer. His first big project? The definitive biography of a certain reclusive director. The only problem is that Diamond doesn't know the first thing about how to do it, even if he's telling people in his life otherwise. "I would write the John Hughes biography that nobody else had ever attempted," he writes. "I would pay the highest tribute to a man whose work had such a huge impact on me, whose vision I had basically based my worldview on. This was my big idea, the one I came up with while drunk and lying."

Diamond helps us ... understand that our love for these flawed, wonderful movies were never really about John Hughes at all. It was about us the whole time.

Diamond becomes a little obsessed, and sometimes it seems like he spends more time talking about the biography at bars than he does actually writing it. A world-weary bartender in Chicago, after hearing Diamond's spiel, shares some needed folksy insight: "It sounds like this book is more about you than it is about John Hughes."

And, of course, he's right, both about Diamond's quixotic biographical project and the the memoir it became. The weakest parts of Searching for John Hughes occur when he belabors that conceit — Diamond works like hell to fit his own narrative into this Hughesian framework, and sometimes it's a stretch. (Is every guy from high school some variation on the archetypal handsome jock, Jake Ryan? Sometimes it feels like it.)

But this memoir is satisfying in a way that a Hughes film never could be, and the author's story will be achingly familiar to anyone who relied on Hollywood for a respite from reality but who came away disappointed. To paraphrase The Breakfast Club, those of us who went searching for John Hughes (figuratively, if not literally) saw him as we wanted to see him, in the simplest terms, and the most convenient definitions. Sure, all us disaffected '80s kids wanted to live in a John Hughes movie, but it's just possible we didn't think through the implications.

"I told myself that getting into his life and putting something into the world, that was what I needed to make all of my problems disappear," Diamond admits. He does, and he does, but not in the way he expects. And while Searching for John Hughes isn't exactly the book he originally set out to write, it's clearly the book he was meant to write. Diamond helps us — with an assist from that wise bartender — understand that our love for these flawed, wonderful movies was never really about John Hughes at all. It was about us the whole time.

Drew Toal works in politics and is an occasional contributor to NPR Books. A native of southern New Jersey (yes, it's pork roll), he now resides in San Francisco with his wife, Stacey.

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Drew Toal