Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Review - Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno

Summary: (via Goodreads) Hairstyles of the Damned is an honest and affectionate depiction of wanting to belong, but never quite belonging. Joe Meno’s pitch-perfect prose illuminates the tumultuous realities of American adolescence, the disintegration of the modern family, and the way a mix-tape can change a person’s life. Following the riotous exploits of Brian, a Catholic school malcontent, and his best friend Gretchen, a punk rock girl fond of brawling, this work of fiction unflinchingly pursues the truth in discovering what it means to develop your own identity.

Review: In his novel, Hairstyles of the Damned, Joe Meno does at least one thing right, he conveys his love and knowledge of punk-rock music – a definite essential for anyone writing within the indie rock novel genre, which this book certainly falls into. And between this and our narrator, Brian Oswald, a high school outcast and total freak who cusses way too much and litters every third sentence with a maybe or an I guess, you get the sense of what the American misguided adolescence is all about: music, getting high, trying to get laid, and avoiding your depressed parents, who at age fifty find themselves just as desperately misguided about life as you are.

Set in the 1990’s in Chicago’s South Side, Hairstyles of the Damned is a hodgepodge of so many different elements, it’s truly as rash and wandering as the mind of a teenager. Brian’s narration is a composition of rants describing his complacent aimlessness: he hates school, doesn’t know what type of music he should like, and his girl situation isn’t very peachy either. Worst of all, the non-plans he invents to get himself out of these dilemmas fire right back in his face. Yeah, he gets the chance to get laid, but what if he doesn't really care about the girl who's offering? Yeah, he manages to get a job, but major coworker issues soon ensue. Yeah, he feels aversion toward the racial inequality in his neighborhood, but what exactly is someone like him expected to do about it? And with parents as uninvolved and as uncaring as the ones he has got (and really, all the parents in this book are represented quite deplorably), we know exactly who to blame for all these problems: contemporary American adults who seem more than happy leaving teenagers to their own devices. And in Meno’s eyes such carelessness leads to two things: teenage aimlessness and the thoughtless immersion in pop-cultural trends without any regard for the loss of individuality.

It’s not all bad though, even if all the characters in the book sport neon-colored hair or shaved heads (Meno didn’t endow his novel with this title for nothing) and often quote angst-y band lyrics in regular conversation. Filtering out all the adolescent craziness –and of this there’s quite a bit – Brian is just as endearing as the next YA character you’re going to meet; he is just a lot more honest. Being a geeky freak isn’t just about not fitting while stumbling upon your one true love, the way a lot of other YA novels want it to be, but about not fitting, falling flat on your face when you try and being bluntly and repeatedly rejected by your one true crush – who in this case is borderline obese, unpopular, and only the more lovely because of it…at least in Brian’s eyes. Yeah, it’s not the most optimistic of pictures, but sometimes neither is life.

What’s perhaps most enticing in this book is the playfulness of Meno’s writing. He writes the way a teen might think, using short and simple words organized in sentences that more closely resemble speech instead of writing. Some of the chapters are written in script, other are nothing more than mix-tape track listings, and one chapters is written completely in reverse, describing everything as though we’re rewinding a movie in slowmo. It’s pretty cool and very in-tune with the carefree feel of the story as a whole.

Lit Snit Verdict: A

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