(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)
Hairstyles of the Damned (2004)
By Joe Meno
Akashic Books/Punk Planet Books / ISBN: 1-888451-70-X
So a big confession before anything else -- that I went into this book really wanting to like author Joe Meno. And of course part of why I want to like him is because he's a Chicago writer, one of the more high-profile writers in Chicago right now in fact, who has won the prestigious Nelson Algren award in the past and who used to do a column for the legendary zine Punk Planet, who is now a well-liked professor at Chicago's Columbia College and is single-handedly shaping an entire new generation of Midwestern authors. Plus I want to like Joe Meno because I'm acquaintances with a couple of people at Punk Planet Books, the newish publishing company who put out Meno's 2004 novel Hairstyles of the Damned; and not only that, but am acquaintances with a couple of people at Akashic Books as well, the more established small press that helped Punk Planet Books come into being. Plus it's a book about Chicago, set in the city, ostensibly covering the same period of time as my own youth, and supposedly full of pop-culture references to my own youth, so really how could I not be looking forward to reading it, and of becoming a fan of Meno's?
Which is why I suppose what I have to say in today's essay is so disappointing, because now after reading Hairstyles myself I actually feel kind of let down; I mean, don't get me wrong, it's certainly not a bad book, but it's also certainly not as good a book as I was expecting from a guy with his kind of background cred (and whose book has sold a whopping 80,000 copies as of the writing of this essay). It's merely a so-so book, in fact, a maudlin fictionalized memoir about the city's southwest side in the late '80s and early '90s, which contains diamonds in the rough to be sure, but ones that are unfortunately surrounded by a lot of pabulum and pastiche. Much of it, to be frank, feels like it could've been written by any anonymous youngish angsty author, with the manuscript filled with the kinds of "top-ten list" indie-rock gimmicks that felt hackneyed even when Nick Hornby was using them in 1995. Why yes, he says, as a certain amount of you now roll your eyes, this is one of those "indie-rock novels" that have become so popular among a certain crowd since the mid-'90s or so, which you should be prepared for before starting; that if you disdain breathless exclamations about how a punk show can singlehandedly and permanently change a person's life, you need to stay the hell away from Hairstyles and do it fast. And this should come as no surprise, of course, coming as it does from Punk Planet Books (duh), born from the ashes of one of the most respected indie-rock publications in history; when the small press first started up, in fact, I'm sure such a manuscript seemed like something right up their alley, the kind of novel they had been created to publish in the first place.
But there are problems with the "indie-rock novel" format, serious literary problems that I didn't mind so much when I was younger, but now seemingly have less and less a tolerance for the older I get, and the more of these types of novels that exist. And like I said, with some of these things that now grate on my nerves, their annoyance has come about precisely because of them becoming such well-worn staples of the genre by now; for example (and seriously, young writers, listen up), I no longer need to ever see another top-ten or mix-tape list buried within a contemporary fictional story ever again. Seriously...STOP. And unfortunately, if you start going through Hairstyles and putting a black mark through all such cutesy indie-rock literary gimmicks found there (including not only a ton of top-ten and mix-tape lists, but also split-page dueling narratives, chapters typeset in a teenage girl's handwriting, sections titled after obscure song lyrics and more), you literally end up taking out something like 25 percent of the entire manuscript, leaving not much more than an inconsequential coming-of-age novella in its wake, something not bad for a Sunday afternoon spent reading a literary journal, but not something a new high-profile small press should be hanging its hopes on with one of its first high-profile books.
Now that said, there are some great things going on within the pages of Hairstyles too, not the least of which is the ultra-complex and ultra-real characterizations on display. I mean, how can you not love a novel about teenage punks that has as one of its main characters an overweight, over-tough girl with a bright pink crewcut, who cannot understand her own sexuality to save her life so just remains a music-obsessed virgin and gets in a bunch of fistfights instead? My God, that's half of the entire punk scene in a nutshell! It's great to see Meno take on the people you find at the edges of an underground community, and suddenly make them the main characters of the story; not the members of a punk band themselves, for example, but rather the circle of misfit losers at the back of the club, who worship that band as a way of avoiding their own self-perceived inadequacies. Meno does a fantastic job, in fact, showing how it is ultimately these people who help each other develop their adult sense of self-esteem, their adult understanding of their own attractiveness, usually not until college when suddenly in a full-time intellectual and creative environment; but how until those people actually get to such an environment, they will never be able to truly believe the nice things their friends and could've-been-lovers say about them. Watching the various characters of Hairstyles fall in love with all the other various characters, an endless unfinished loop where no one ever ends up with the person they most want, we're reminded in a profound way of just what a nightmare the whole subject was back as a teen ourselves, and of how glad we are that we've outgrown those years. (Well, those of us who actually have; teen CCLaP readers, take it from me, things do get better.)
I kept rooting for these elements of the book, to tell you the truth, and kept hoping that Meno would start pulling it all together more as the manuscript progressed; unfortunately, though, the entirety of Hairstyles ends up being a rather loose novel when all is said and done, full of great moments you keep wishing would last longer, padded out with silly fluff you wish wouldn't. I tell you this, that the book has certainly gotten me interested in reading more of Meno's work; he actually has five novels out at this point, including 2006's The Boy Detective Fails which was also published by Akashic/Punk Planet. Hairstyles of the Damned is an intriguing book, one where I can see a young author's mature voice starting to come through (Meno was 30 when it came out, for those who don't know); it'll be interesting to read his newer work, I think, and see if that maturity has finally burst through all the way.