Playing It Cool

Playing It Cool

by Joaquin Dorfman

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“I always know what I’m doing.”
So says 18-year-old Sebastian Montero, who is famous around town as a problem solver of the subtlest kind. Want a date with the girl of your dreams? Bastian can make it happen. Have a friend threatening suicide? Baz can talk him off the ledge. But as popular as Sebastian is, no one really knows him.


“I always know what I’m doing.”
So says 18-year-old Sebastian Montero, who is famous around town as a problem solver of the subtlest kind. Want a date with the girl of your dreams? Bastian can make it happen. Have a friend threatening suicide? Baz can talk him off the ledge. But as popular as Sebastian is, no one really knows him. Thanks to his intricate network of favors and debts Sebastian controls the world, manipulates it—and hides from it. It isn’t until his best friend asks him to track down his long-missing father that Sebastian is forced to face the most challenging problem of all, the solution to which will change his life forever.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Sebastian Montero, 18, is the go-to guy when there's trouble. On the first day Dorfman's (Burning City) story takes place, Sebastian sets up a date for a lonely friend, delivers another to and from her appointment at an abortion clinic and talks a jumper down from a rooftop. His major project is reuniting best friend Jeremy with his long-lost father, Dromio, who abandoned him years earlier. Sebastian, also fatherless, has called in favors to track down and assemble a dossier on Dromio, a Robin Hood-style do-gooder (like Sebastian?) who runs a restaurant where anybody can eat for 25 cents, but most people vastly overpay in order to distinguish themselves from those who can't. In a cockamamy scheme, the two buddies switch identities before meeting Dromio, just in case he turns out to be a cad. If all this sound a tad implausible, it is. Like his main character, Dorfman's narrative has too much going on. Everybody speaks in clever repart e (at one point, Sebastian asks, "Is there anyone in this town who can't quote Ambrose Bierce?" and the answer is, apparently, no). Still, there's a hipster cadence to Sebastian's present-tense narration, and a window into the adulterated world of grown-ups that might appeal to teen voyeurs willing to ignore the abundance of coincidences that fuels the plot. Ages 12-up. (May) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature - Judy Crowder
As a book hero, Sebastian Montero is not for the timid. He a wheeler-dealer, par excellence, a Farris Bueller with street smarts, living, as the author puts it, in a quid pro quo world in which everything comes with a price. He is a senior in high school but indulges in very over-twenty-one habits: smoking, drinking rum-and-cokes, and sleeping with an older woman--all with the enabling of so-called adults. When he gets a hysterical phone call from Sara, a friend, he goes into action, arranging an abortion without her mother's consent, complete with pick up from the clinic. He arranges dream dates at expensive restaurants, counsels a suicidal friend, unveils the secret of overcoming a term paper deadline, proffers favors, and collects on past favors. In short, he has everything figured out--or does he? When his friend Jeremy locates his biological father, it is up to �Bastian to arrange a meeting then trade ID's in order to lower the risk. A trip to Wilmington NC from Durham to meet this man, however, starts an unraveling of events that even Sebastian cannot stop. Dorfman's writing is brisk, edgy, and not for the immature young reader. His hero, Sebastian, is hardly a role model, but the author manages to keep the reader sympathizing as Baz eventually realizes that "growing up isn't something that happens to you. It's a choice that you make." This is the author's debut novel.
Sebastian Montero is an eighteen-year-old "fixer," the really nice guy who is able and willing to talk a suicidal friend off the roof in the same afternoon that he helps a girl he barely knows get out of an abortion clinic without being seen by her picketing mother. His biggest, most elaborate scheme, however, is fixing up his friend Jeremy with the father Jeremy never knew. Purportedly to protect Jeremy from disappointment or backlash, part of this "fix" is to have Sebastian and Jeremy switch identities so that Jeremy can come along for the introductions and initial visit without risk of rejection. Like Jeremy, Sebastian has always been fatherless, so he knows the threat of disappointment should events not turn out well. The guys drive from Durham to Wilmington, North Carolina; meet Jeremy's father and his wife, daughter, and daughter's best friend; and embark on a series of adventures that push the boys too far apart for their friendship to withstand. Like Sebastian, Jeremy's father proves to be a fixer-and Sebastian cannot help but notice characteristics the man seems to share with the father Sebastian has had described to him as his own. Dorfman shows an excellent ear for dialogue and a keen eye for both adolescent and adult posturing, as the characters here place themselves in emotional danger, help others out of physical danger, and confront the realities of class-and economics. The ending is no fairy tale, but it is satisfying in its adherence to realism. VOYA CODES: 5Q 4P S (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Broad general YA appeal; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2006, Random House, 336p., and PLB Ages 15 to 18.
—Francisca Goldsmith
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up-Hot on the heels of Burning City (Random, 2005), which Dorfman coauthored with his father, Ariel Dorfman, comes this first solo effort, a sophisticated, mystery/romance/coming-of-age story full of red herrings and elaborate schemes. Eighteen-year-old Sebastian is a solver of problems. Friends and friends of friends confide in him, adults as often as peers, and he finesses, bribes, deals, and conspires to help them through everything from abortion to attempted suicide. Like a superhero, he can be available at a moment's notice; like the main character in a noir novel, he drinks coffee and alcohol and smokes until he comes up with the information or resources needed to carry out his scheme. His latest case involves tracking down his friend Jeremy's birth father, who has a checkered past, and then planning a visit to meet him. The teens agree to switch identities, allowing Jeremy an emotional distance from which to better assess the man. The plan is elaborate and full of danger, and as Sebastian gets to know Jeremy's mysterious father, Dromio, he begins to find himself trapped by his own deceptions. Sebastian is a memorable character-cocky, clever, and very mature at times. The story is filled with adult language and behavior, including blackmail and violence, but not all that much sex. Sebastian is still a needy boy, though this only becomes evident slowly, in his insecurity with girls, and as his desperate need for a father of his own begins to surface. The adult characters are complex and often fascinating, especially Dromio. While the tension abates toward the end, this fast-paced novel will grip mature young adults.-Susan Oliver, Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library System, FL Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Known to his classmates as a problem-solver, Sebastian is a con man with a conscience. The story opens with Baz trying to get his buddy a date, talking another out of suicide and helping his pseudo-girlfriend escape from an abortion clinic where her mother is picketing. Baz juggles these none-too-small problems with confidence, relying on favors-and even blackmail-to get the jobs done. Since he knows little about his father, Baz is eager to help Jeremy find his own real dad. A trip to Wilmington results in a reunion with Dromio, a smooth-talking businessman whose modern-day Robin Hood routine is remarkably similar to Sebastian's. Baz tries to "play it cool," but his confidence cracks as he begins to wonder about his own father's identity and eventually realizes he's had the tables turned on him. Dorfman's solo debut is as original as Burning City (2005), a joint effort between him and his father, but it lacks the same fluidity. Curiously missing pronouns result in a choppy style, but the story is compelling and draws to a satisfying conclusion. (Fiction. YA)

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Random House Children's Books
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Read an Excerpt

Playing It Cool

By Joaquin Dorfman

Random House

Joaquin Dorfman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0375836411

Chapter One


1. Only If It's an Emergency

Cesar dropped us off at my house.

It was four in the afternoon, and spring was making its presence known. Sun at a flattering angle to the neighbor's lawns, single story houses laying low beneath clear, blue skies. Slight humidity, birds engaged in sweet-sounding conversations. Regenerated trees rustling with a little help from the southern breeze. Smells of a nearby cookout, kids reclaiming the streets with their bikes, music from an open window filling the gaps of activity.

Train whistle in the distance.

All the deceptive makings of a small town in North Carolina.

I got out of the car, shut the door to the passenger's side.

Jeremy got out of the back seat. Headed for the house.

Cesar kept the engine of his rust-red Pontiac idling. Earnest, seventeen-year-old face looking up at me through rolled-down windows. First generation Mexican-American, eyes still remembering where he came from. Genuine hope displayed in a smile of well-intentioned teeth.

"You really are something, Seba," he told me.

"You're the one who asked her," I replied.

"I didn't think Nicole would say yes."

"Waste of a good worry, Cesar."

"There's still tomorrow night."

"Come on, Bastian, let's go!" Jeremycalled out from behind me. Waiting by the curb, fidgeting impatiently. A long-established habit of his.

I ignored him. A long-established habit of mine.

"Tomorrow night's taken care of," I told Cesar. "I've made reservations for two at the Mezzanine."

"The Mezzanine?" Cesar was back to worrying. "I can't afford a place like that. Ten dollar soups, the catch of the day's the same price as the boat they used to catch it--"

"There are ways around money."

"I don't have anything to wear."

"I'll take care of it."

"My mother needs the car Fridays," Cesar mumbled.

"Just tell Nicole to meet you at the restaurant at eight sharp. I'll be by your house to pick you up at seven."

"And after the date, I'm just supposed to ask her for a ride?"

I shrugged. "It's the nineties."

"So were the eighties."

"Don't worry about it."

Cesar sighed. Nodded, put the car into first. "I hope you know what you're doing."

"I always know what I'm doing."

Cesar knew it, too. Drove off without another word.

I watched him go.

"I'm glad you know what you're doing," I heard Jeremy say. "Because I don't have a goddamn clue."

I turned and saw that Jeremy had sat himself on the curb. Brown sweater and khakis hanging uncomfortably off his scrawny frame. Sneakers tapping against the ground, body bouncing slightly. Blond hair stopping just short of blue eyes that were always thinking two disasters ahead of everyone else. Top set of teeth nervously working on his lower lip. Fingers toying with each other.

I walked past him.

Jeremy stood up and followed me. White aluminum siding accompanied us around the house, through the back yard. Sneakers cutting through tall grass, swishing sounds with each stride as he started in. "We leave the day after to- morrow."


"Try unprepared."

"We're all the way prepared."

I opened the back door, and the two of us made our way through the small kitchen. Down a dark hallway, floorboards creaking.

"You may be all the way prepared," Jeremy words were starting to gain momentum. "But this is all happening very fast for me. I need to go over this at my own pace, I need details. Contingency plans. We leave the day after tomorrow, and this was supposed to be our day to work on things, get our stories straight. And so far, what . . . ? After school, we dropped Sara off at the clinic, paid Mr. Wallace a visit, fixed Cesar up with Nicole--"

"Your father's probably just as nervous as you."

Jeremy took a moment to find his breath, "Which one?"

"The one in Wilmington, what do you think?"

Another door open, and we were in my room. Nothing special to look at in there. I was never one for decoration. Typical posters and teenage paraphernalia replaced with my own view of the world, simple and clear-cut. Personal touch abandoned in favor of only that which was necessary . . . A bed, two chairs. Bookshelves and a wardrobe. Squat, second-hand desk.

Answering machine.

"I think," Jeremy collapsed in a chair, "that what my . . . father thinks isn't for you to say."

"He's waiting for you with open arms," I assured him. Went back over familiar territory as I took off my jacket. Leaned against the desk with my arms crossed. "Waiting for both of us with open arms. That's got to count for something."

"Won't count for much when we get to Wilmington only to have your switch blow up in my face."

"It's our switch, Jeremy. And nothing's going to blow up."

"What are you doing?"

I stopped, my finger inches away from the answering machine. "Checking this message."

A miserable look crossed Jeremy's face.

"It's just one message," I told him.

"Doesn't make me feel better."


"I don't even need to hear that message." Jeremy was talking fast again, repeating himself. "Don't even need the details to know what's going to happen next. You promised me today's our day to get things done, smooth out the specifics, and now we're going to end up going off on some other--"

"Jeremy . . ." This conversation was a familiar one. "You asked for my help. You'll get it. But right now I need you to shut up and control yourself. Otherwise, I walk away and you can face your father on your own."

Jeremy stared up at me. "Not likely."

"Not likely, what?"

I returned Jeremy's stare. Trying not to let a lifetime of friendship interfere with what had to be done. Never letting a trace of struggle come to the surface, despite recurring doubts about whether it was Jeremy who couldn't live without me, or possibly the other way around . . .

"Just check the message," Jeremy conceded, leaning back and crossing his arms.

A moment later, and the tape was playing back Sara's voice for me:

"Bastian, it's Sara . . . I'm still at the clinic. Oh, God, you're not going to like this . . . My mother's outside, and she's got around twenty of her friends with her. They've all got signs protesting the place. They're not going anywhere, Bastian, and the clinic closes at six . . . Please think of something. I can't stay in here forever . . ."

End of message.

Excerpted from Playing It Cool by Joaquin Dorfman Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Joaquin Dorfman was born in Amsterdam in 1979 on the coldest night of the year. His first play opened at the Edinburgh Festival when he was nineteen. Currently Joaquin is working on a new YA novel and a collection of short stories. The author lives in Durham, NC.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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