Boy Detective Fails, The: By Joe Meno, 328 pgs. By Todd Taylor

Jun 04, 2007

Joe Meno’s not a great punk writer. He’s not a great teen angst writer. Joe Meno’s one great writer, sans qualifying adjective. That’s the long and short of it, and basically all of the review you need to read. I highly recommend his works. Joe pays great attention to his craft, he’s inventive, and his books never forget to include the reader. Having read a broad swath of Joe’s work, another thing’s impressive: he doesn’t blatantly repeat himself. He’s got completely different and wholly conceived works in his brainbox. (Think of him like Hüsker Dü or Fugazi: thematically, you can trace threads from the explosive blurs of their early work, all the way to quieter, more artistic ends, but each album’s distinctly different. That’s the opposite of the Bad Religion approach after Suffer, where it feels like redecorating; the constant rearranging of parts previously discovered.) The Boy Detective follows the tradition of Fugazi. Those expecting a Minor Threat-style Hairstyles of the Damned, Part II (The Captain Sensible Diaries) will be disappointed with The Boy Detective Fails because it’s a quiet, restrained, and delicately told novel. It’s a work of perpetually evolving charm.

The Boy Detective Fails follows the post-ascension life of Billy Argo, who was once a premier boy detective—and is a symptomatic model for all the corrosive self-doubt and loathing that seems to be part and parcel with child stars never being able to live up to those early-in-life heights ever again. At age thirty, the novel catches up with Billy coming out of a ten-year stint in a mental hospital with Billy trying to get and keep his shit together. Told in the teenage crime-fighting style of the Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, and Scooby-Doo, (with “those meddling kids” uncovering plots), the everyday happenings of a man—whose life is in shambles, but with detailed notes—takes on a new light and that’s the literary space that Joe adeptly controls, be it through small bits of magical realism (every time Billy turns the light on in his room, it snows), and, often, humor. (Billy’s tough-talking, osteoporosis-stricken nemesis, Professor Von Golum, is constantly trying to serve Billy his comeuppance and plotting to kill him via dastardly murder plots.)

Billy is also wonderfully and believably awkward. The act of taking his love interest’s hand comes near the very end of the book after many, many failed and aborted attempts by both parties. Thankfully, Joe does a good job of making the reader sympathetic for Billy but not sorry for him. Glimmers of competence and a great mind flash every so often, offsetting his thick glasses, I-want-to-punch-him-isms, and constant hand-wringing. The overarching effect is a very controlled sweetness that flirts—but, thankfully, never succumbs—to outright preciousness. That’s a tight rope to walk all the way across a novel that not many writers can pull off.

I rarely comment on the physical structure of books, but The Boy Detective calls for it. Its design is playful without being hard-to-read or look-at-me, aren’t-I-fancy, and ultimately rewards the careful reader with visual clues; from quick-burst chapters, to split column dual conversations, to Billy’s notes to himself bunched up in small type in a corner of an otherwise blank page. In the marginalia is an encrypted code and the book jacket provides a decoder ring (I suggest making a photocopy instead of cutting the book). Instead of coming across as gimmicks, these graphic design devices further enrich the reading, the playfulness, and the sharp focus of this novel. It also helps crystallize my final thought about The Boy Detective Fails: it’s a love story to the innocence, energy, and easy wonder that radiates from children as much as it is an exploration of the absolute difficulty of recapturing that seductive essence as adults. –Todd Taylor (Akashic Books, PO Box 1456, New York, NY 10009)