In or around Pittsburgh, PA in 1991
Mr. Anonymous (a.k.a. Charlie) never tells us where he lives. No return address, nothing. Well, Charlie, you can't fool us. We here at Shmoop are literary detectives, and we think we've figured you out. We're calling you a Midwestern boy.
Exhibit A: Charlie's brother goes to Penn State, which is about 140 miles west of Pittsburgh. Then Sam decides to go there, too. If this was all we knew, we could assume that they'd chosen a nearby college. But you know what they say happens when we assume. Thankfully, we have a couple more clues.
Exhibit B: Charlie's dad's relatives live in Ohio, which according to Charlie is a "two-hour drive" (2.12.39). Now this isn't a math class, but we can safely guess that Charlie's family lives in one of the states surrounding Ohio. Pennsylvania, perhaps?
Exhibit C: The smoking gun, folks. When Charlie, Sam, and Patrick drive through that symbolic tunnel and feel "infinite" (1.10.118), Charlie names it in his letter: "the Fort Pitt Tunnel" (1.10.116). Oops—cover blown. A quick jaunt over to Google Maps confirms that the Fort Pitt Tunnel is in Pittsburgh, PA.
Party Like It's 1991
In 1991, George H.W. Bush was president, Nirvana released "Smells Like Teen Spirit", Dr. Seuss died, and The Silence of the Lambs was a hit at the box office. Also, in a suburb of Pittsburgh (we think), a young boy named Charlie (we think) began his first year of high school.
The '90s setting isn't necessarily pivotal to the novel. Charlie isn't Forrest Gump—he doesn't meet President Bush, watch the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup, or celebrate the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He isn't even really immersed in the pop culture of his time. He doesn't seem to watch any current TV shows or movies. And his taste in music is everywhere, from the '60s (Simon & Garfunkel), '70s (Pink Floyd), '80s (U2), and '90s (Nirvana).
What's a Cassette?
What's important to Charlie in the '90s is the way he listens to music—on a cassette tape. Charlie loves him some mix tapes, too, and that's how he expresses himself to his friends. Making a mix tape takes a little more time and thought than clicking a few MP3s and adding them to a playlist, so it's a pretty nice gesture.
If you want to make a mix tape of your own, get ready for some focus. After all, you don't want your favorite song, closing out Side A, to get cut off right in the middle of the rockin' thirty-second drum solo. You also have to listen to the music as you record it, so set aside an hour, grab a can of Raging Razzberry Pepsi, and get into a musical mood. If the person you give the final product to can't find anything to play it on, at least they can make a wallet out of it.
You might be thinking "TMI, Shmoop, TMI," but we just want to get you (and yeah, maybe ourselves) in the '90s mood.