Anne Tyler’s focus in this story is the gradual disintegration of the relationship between a teenage boy and his parents. The title of the story, taken from the lyrics of “Baba O’Riley,” a song popularized by The Who in the early 1970’s, clearly suggests Tyler’s theme, although in an oblique way. “Teenage Wasteland” is a metaphor for the place where Donny’s parents see him when they pick him up at Cal’s: Students there are idly shooting baskets; loud music pours out through the windows; and Donny, “spiky and excited,” looks like someone they do not know. To Daisy and Matt, all the students look like hoodlums. When Daisy murmurs, “Teenage Wasteland,” recognizing the song, Matt, misunderstanding, replies, “It certainly is.” Thus in only a few lines, Tyler encapsulates the enormous distance between them and the youngsters playing in Cal’s backyard. The distance increases as Donny moves further from them, until communication between them nearly ceases. When Donny is expelled, the fact that he heads for Cal’s house instead of home signifies both his preference for his tutor and his inability to make his mother accept his lame explanation of the incident that precipitated the expulsion.
The image with which Tyler closes the story is subtle and moving. Lying awake at night, Daisy tries to understand what has happened and has a vision of Cal’s yard, where a neighbor’s fence casts narrow shadow bars across the spring grass. As she drifts off to sleep, she recalls that scene, the stripes of sunlight “as white as bones, bleached and parched and cleanly picked.” It is a fearful image, one that Tyler does not explain, leaving it to the reader to interpret as an expression of Daisy’s defeat and despair.