Camp Ascend! is the place for troubled teens. When parents have despaired of controlling troubled children, there is a program guaranteed to straighten young people out in six-week sessions. One by one the teens, boys and girls, are delivered to a dilapidated former music camp, now owned by “The Colonel.”
Loren is one such unlucky young man. Reacting to his mother’s revolving door of boyfriends, Loren has acted out one time too many, his so-called commando strike a miserable failure, his punishment a sojourn at the camp. Unimpressed, Loren views his campmates with equanimity, certain he can game the system.
These kids have no idea of the shabby operation masquerading as a youth camp: the Colonel, never a real soldier; his catalog-shopping wife Kitty; and Kitty’s brother, Donovan, a blunt bully who takes his rage and frustration out on anyone available, in this case a bunch of maladjusted kids helpless in the face of the more powerful adults.
Sensing opportunity, Loren hopes to stand out as a leader, watching, planning, and hoping to outsmart a vigilant Donovan. But the Colonel and Donovan have planned ahead, herding the boys into one cabin, the girls into another, all locked in for indefinite periods of time between rigorous exercises designed to wear them down.
Things go from bad to worse, Donovan increasingly demanding and cruel. While the Colonel fends off blowback from Donovan’s violence against another teenager from a prior camp session, the thick-headed guard ratchets up his punishments, focusing his frustrations on Loren. Once Loren escapes, the Colonel gets nervous, deciding to vacate the premises before the law arrives.
When a disbelieving Loren is returned to the camp by a local couple who has been promised a reward, he is even more determined to expose the whole enterprise for what it is. Locked in a room awaiting Donovan’s next torture session, Loren makes one more desperate attempt - and vows not to leave the others behind. One final clash pits kids against adults; when the smoke clears, no one is seriously hurt, though most are badly battered.
At a time when parents turn to tough love to control incorrigible teens, Camp Ascend! seems the perfect antidote. In fact, a cottage industry has grown up around society’s needs in this regard. Unfortunately, like Camp Ascend!, many are unregulated, parents leaving their children in the care of untrained and potentially dangerous counselors.
Dogface is a surprising novel on many levels, engaging, well-written and timely. The author points out the dramatic problems that face parents and teens and the often all-too-easy answers provided by outsiders. Couched in dark humor, the deeper issues in the novel are clear and relevant, the unfortunate campers sent home to create havoc another day.