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The Boy Detective Fails
By Joe Meno
Punk Planet/Akashic Books / ISBN: 978-1-933354-10-1
So for today's review to make sense, I need to explain something to those who are reading it from outside of Chicago; that although our literary community here is a large and thriving one, with hundreds of published writers and hundreds of others who perform live on stages each week, there are perhaps only two handfuls of authors in the city now who have achieved legitimate national mainstream success, the kind of success where you can mention them to random people in other cities and they'll say, "Oh, I've heard of him. He's good." And these 10 or 15 writers tend to be revered by much of the rest of the community, for choosing to stay in Chicago and continuing to support the local scene here, instead of running off to Brooklyn like every writer and their hipster f--king uncle seems to have done by now; and this is especially true when they double as a professor at one of the local colleges as well, which most of these 10 or 15 most famous Chicago authors do, building these little undergraduate armies that not only adore them but almost worship them outright.
And thus do we come to Chicago author Joe Meno, a guy around my age and on the staff of Columbia College's well-known fiction program (a school also well-known for their film and photography programs), whose huge and surprising national success now has mostly come from his long-time association with Punk Planet (both the magazine and now the publishing company). And the reason I know that Meno has this entire small army of ultra-passionate fans is because of publishing here at the site last year an only so-so review of his first novel, 2004's maudlin indie-rock memoir Hairstyles of the Damned, which happened to also be the high-profile kickoff of Punk Planet as a small press; although none of his fans were outright rude or mean to me after I posted that mediocre review, I did certainly hear from a whole sh-tload of them, on a regular basis that has never stopped to this day, with most of them very patiently explaining over and over how I really owe it to myself to just read some of his newer work. "Seriously," the average email or comment would go, "just sit down and read some of his newer work. Seriously. You'll see then why everyone goes so nuts for him."
Okay, so this week I finally did; I finally got my hands on his latest novel, 2006's The Boy Detective Fails, also on the now-proven Punk Planet imprint (who also this year put out Elizabeth Crane's newest book, speaking of revered Chicago authors with national followings). And hey, guess what, Meno fans, you're right, you're right! This is an astounding novel, I have to admit, something that immediately rockets Meno past the "snotty college DJ with a book in him" level of his first manuscript and into the stratum of "an American version of Haruki Murakami" (or if you will, a more accessible Mark Danielewski), a dense and trippy story that is metaphorical, emotional, naked and layered all at once, the sure sign of a mature writer coming into his own for the first time. In fact, after finishing it, I had to ask myself why Meno didn't just start his career in novels with a story like this in the first place, instead of the semi-hacky material of Hairstyles, material that had already been mined to death by such writers as Nick Hornby, Chuck Klosterman and a million 19-year-old zinesters? If you've got this kind of novel in you, why not just start with this novel?
But then I remembered -- maybe Meno didn't have this kind of novel in him when he wrote Hairstyles, that maybe it took the writing of Hairstyles to be able to put together a novel like Boy Detective. And this of course gets into a subject I've talked about here at CCLaP many times before, one of the reasons that we long-term fans of certain artists become long-term fans to begin with; and that's the pleasures and frustrations of watching a certain artist over the course of their entire career, to watch them both grow and falter as a person and as a creative professional, and to see where the things from earlier in their lives take them later in life. Because make no mistake; when I say that this novel is "Murakamiesque," I mean that impossibly weird, unexplainable things happen on nearly every page, but with Meno confidently steamrolling ahead with the prose as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening at all. There's a difference between that and simply writing a story where weird stuff happens; to reach the kind of level that Murakami and Meno do, you have to write that story in a mature and steady hand, to be completely confident that your story is quite off the tracks altogether of mainstream normalcy but that you yourself are on the right track anyway.
In this case, Meno starts with what would've been a cutesy but otherwise empty Clown Girl style gimmicky literary trick; he envisions a world where such child detectives as Encyclopedia Brown, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew actually exist, and as adults have to a fault become overwhelmingly neurotic, barely functioning messes. Our hero Billy Argo, for example, is clearly a stand-in for Brown himself, a precociously intelligent child and cardigan-wearing Modernist poster-boy during his youth, who needs only to stare at random strangers through his magnifying glass to get them to blurt out embarrassing truths about themselves. As a middle-aged adult, though, we learn that Argo has been in and out of mental institutions for decades, with permanent bald spots on the sides of his scalp from all the electroshock treatments he's received, basically hanging up both the detective work and his entire life after the suicide of his beloved sister, fellow crime-fighter during their youths who became an aimless goth after Billy left for university. He spent a decade in a voluntary drug haze within a safely confined state institution because of all this; but now the government money for such programs have dried up, meaning that Billy himself is now dried out, sober and ejected from the hospital and suddenly in the glaring sun of a general population he barely understands anymore, an ugly and obscenity-filled world that is a far cry from his glittering early-'60s youth.
Yeah, I know what a lot of you are saying at this point -- "Zuh? Wha? Come again?" And believe me, this is just the set-up I'm talking about; within the first 50 pages, all of the things I've described have already taken place, leading Billy on a new contemporary quest to understand himself and his sister's death, precisely through a weirder and weirder story involving a halfway house, a mute child bully, gaping underground caverns that might or might not actually exist, and the most unreliable narrator this side of American Freaking Psycho. But just like Murakami (and you know what I mean if you're a fan), Meno manages to pull all these disparate elements together, and in a way that seems effortless too, and deliver a story with a lot of raw and true emotional wallop at its center while still couched in a dreamlike fairytale narrative structure. It's a difficult thing to describe, fans of these stories will tell you, and almost impossible to actually describe where the line lays between these kinds of projects and unintelligible artsy messes; you just know it when you see it, I guess, and here Meno definitely has "it."
Like I said, I think a lot of it has to do with the author themselves getting to a point of real maturity in their careers, a point where they truly understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and are able to veer off suddenly from the norm without worrying fatally that they're heading down the wrong road. This is always where a good writer becomes a great one, after all, is the moment they step off that highway the rest of us are on and say, "You know, I think I'm going to create this brand-new road out of thin air, and I invite the rest of you to drive down it too once I'm finished building it." That's what makes a great artist great; they can imagine this new nonexistent road where none of the rest of us can, when all the rest of us are happy to keep driving down that boring ol' concrete road that everyone else is driving down. Or if you want to put it in even simpler terms in this case, let's say it like this -- that when you compare the two books directly, Hairstyles seems like the one that everyone wanted Meno to write and expected out of him, while Boy Detective is the one that no one but Meno himself could've envisioned beforehand. And it's precisely because of this that Boy Detective is so great, and Hairstyles so mediocre.
This only comes from being a more and more mature artist, and that in turn only comes from being a prolific artist, of simply writing and writing and writing if you're for example a writer, of just picking up that pen and starting the next novel as soon as the previous one is finished. It's a great thing to watch in Meno, to watch him grow as an artist like that, to actually follow through on the raw promise displayed in his earlier flawed work; it's always fantastic, I think, to watch a good writer become a great one right in front of you, and I'm sure is a big part of what inspires such a passionate audience around Meno's work in the first place. I'm happy that all of them bugged me so much over the last six months, and goaded me into reading Boy Detective and changing my opinion about his work; oh, that all of us could be as lucky as Meno, I suppose, and have the kind of passionate and proactive group of fans that he does. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to reading yet more of this intriguing author's work in the future.
Out of 10: