When it comes to contemporary authors, I readily admit to being in a complete void as to who is who. This is partially from choice because of the fear of contracting some sort of homogenizing virus ala Invasion of the Body Snatchers because of the Oprah Book Club taint that swims in the blood stream of America’s book retailers. Therefore, I was completely clueless as to who Joe Meno was when I picked this book up from the Razorcake review pile. I’m very glad that I’ve corrected the situation.
Tender as Hellfire is a reissue of Meno’s first novel, originally published in 1999. The story is told from the viewpoint of ten-year-old boy with the unfortunate name of Dough. The novel starts as Dough and his thirteen-year-old brother, Pill-Bug, move to the ass end of nowhere town of Tenderloin with their mother and her boyfriend, where their already non-too-subtle knacks for anti-social behavior and getting ostracized become further compounded. Tenderloin evokes images of every failed town one encounters along a highway which seems to exist in a weird fugue state of resigned desperation, dirty trailer parks, and abandoned farms and industry. It’s basically the kind of town that has you asking yourself, “How has this place not collectively invested in straight razors and sleeping pills?” Dough manages to cope by finding small comforts such as befriending his equally misaligned classmate Lottie, becoming enamored of his babysitter/neighbor Val, or learning the value of a glass eye. Pill fairs worse, though, as he tends to indulge his tendencies for porn, cigarettes and arson when the chips are down, (and the chips are always down).
In a way, this is the type of book I was hoping for when I read Catcher in the Rye. Pill and Dough really are rough around the edges losers in nearly who are desperately trying to come terms with a nearly hopeless situation, and not just horny prep school boys with a penchant for letting lose some curse words every so often. This novel is a classic bildungsroman, which traces the main characters’ often painful adolescent development. Meno excels in getting to the heart of his flawed characters, whether it’s Pill, Dough, or any of the other souls who appear in the story and evoking the reader’s genuine sympathy. These aren’t “beautiful losers” so much as just losers who are all trying to keep on going. While there are the slightest hints of magical realism lurking at the edges of the story, mainly in the form of the Devil making a couple of appearances, it is pretty clear that no one or nothing is coming down to save these people. Instead, the message that the book gets across is the harder but ultimately more affirming notion, to quote Flipper, that sometimes “life is the only thing worth living for.” –Adrian Salas (Akashic Books, PO Box 1456, NY, NY10009)