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Better Read Than Dead in ‘U.S.S.A.’ Teen Book Series

Times Staff Writer

Strange things are happening in America in 1996. Generals from its own military have taken over the government. They’ve changed the flag, rewritten the national anthem and renamed the republic, calling it the United Secure States of America.

They’ve even banned rock ‘n’ roll.

In fact, it is with nasty “New Cops” burning records and tapes in fictional Sandersville, Ohio, that “U.S.S.A.” begins. For 17-year-old protagonist Eddie Ludlow, the experience is a kind of political epiphany.

Exactly what the author and producers of the “U.S.S.A.” series of political thrillers hope will happen to the largely male teen-age audience they are seeking to target. Author Tom DeHaven and packagers/producers Byron Preiss and Dan Weiss contend the books, centering around a theme of proud patriotism, will at once attract boys as young as 9 and as old as 17, an audience largely overlooked by the publishing community, and will tap into a youthful political consciousness that has to date been fueled largely by violence in film and on television.

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But author and one-time high school English instructor DeHaven is adamant that “the book itself is certainly not Rambo-esque. There’s very little violence, just a couple of action scenes and one big scene at the end. But as far as anyone lugging around machine guns that are half the body size, that doesn’t occur.”

The forthcoming series from Avon Books “is designed to appeal to kids who have been seduced by the ‘Rambo’ literature,” Preiss, partner with Weiss here in a concern called General Licensing Co., explained.

With teen-agers banding together to oppose the military regime that has taken over America, Preiss said, the books do embrace the kind of traditionalism and back-to-basics values that have come to be associated with Reagan-era America. But, Preiss insists, the “U.S.S.A.” books should not be lumped in with some kind of gun-toting, blast-'em-back-to-the-Stone-Age mentality.

“The new patriotism is let’s-blow-their-heads-off,” Preiss said. “The old patriotism is America is a country in which civil rights exist, and as an agent of freedom in the world, it is our patriotic duty to protect those civil rights.”

Four-Book Series

To be released as a bi-monthly series of at least four books, “U.S.S.A.,” Preiss said, “is really meant to deal with the issue of what it would be like to live in a country in which there were no civil rights.”

“Patriotism is popular these days,” Weiss said, “but at the same time this series is more thoughtful. I think our series is considerably more highbrow, and we are hoping to get across an important message, a traditional, patriotic message, without being foolishly, violently patriotic.

“We have to be a little bit more intellectual,” Weiss added, “although I hate to use that word because I don’t want to turn off the readers.”

Weiss heads up Cloverdale Press, packager of, among other products, the highly successful “Sweet Valley High” series of teen romances. Aside from such notable exceptions as the novels of S. E. Hinton, he pointed out, the vast majority of teen fiction seems to address itself to young girls. “We think there is a market,” Weiss said, “for boys’ adventure books.”

Preiss, creator of an earlier series for young people called “Time Machine” (Bantam Books), said he had been watching the “Rambo” phenomenon with interest for some time. “Having grown up in the ‘60s,” Preiss, 33, said, “I couldn’t understand where it was coming from, given what this country had been through. Having been through the Vietnam War, ‘Rambo’ seemed a little mind-boggling to me.”

About a year ago, Preiss began focusing on how he could take that kind of patriotic fervor and interpret it for an adolescent audience. Joining forces with Weiss, Preiss came up with the three-page outline about a military takeover of the United States that became DeHaven’s working skeleton for “U.S.S.A.”

Title Came First

“We started with the title and worked backward from there,” Weiss said. “We felt that it was time, basically.”

Political adventure was a new twist. Like main character Eddie, Preiss acknowledged, politics has not been a major topic for a generation often characterized by sappy romance stories, cute movies about the angst of adolescence and the kind of nihilism reflected in a novel like “Less Than Zero.”

“I was teaching high school when Reagan was elected,” author DeHaven said. “The kids hardly knew anything about politics or what was going on. As far as understanding American politics and the context of things, it was a big zero.”

Still, Preiss argued, although teen-agers today might not be widely described as political creatures, “I think they are getting to be. I think Amy Carter (arrested not long ago for participating in an apartheid protest at Brown University) is a bellwether of what is going to be coming up in the next few years.”

Preiss points, too, to this year’s bicentennial celebration of the U.S. Constitution, “which I think will cast a lot of light on the Bill of Rights. Maybe this will be the year people will say, ‘Yeah, what are we protecting?’ ”

After all, Preiss went on, “The U.S.S.A. isn’t so different from Somoza’s Nicaragua in the sense that there isn’t a free press. I mean, rock ‘n’ roll is banned.”

Possible Film Deal

Currently engaged in “serious talks” with Hollywood producers interested in translating “U.S.S.A.” to a possible film or television format, Preiss said the book series would begin in February. Depending on the reaction to the initial four books, he said, “They’ll either continue or tell us we had a noble experiment.”

But the final judge, Dan Weiss said, will be the youthful consumers. In its way, he said, the “U.S.S.A.” series can be viewed as downright bold. “Intellectually it is,” he said, “in that writing about a military takeover of the United States is always a daring thing to do, especially for 9-year-olds.”

Besides, Weiss said, “ ‘U.S.S.A.’ has a very patriotic message, and we think that’s daring too, because it could be seen as a little corny.”

Kids, Weiss said, “are very cynical.”


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