Friday, April 01, 2005

13. Hairstyles of the Damned

by Joe Meno

I’ve never joined a book club, mostly because I don’t think I’d trust the tastes and criticisms of a random group of people. However, when Alice first conceived the Gapers Block book club, I thought, “Finally…my bandwagon has arrived.” Discussing literature with GB readers and fellow staffers? That sounds like a good time.

I’ll admit, wasn’t too thrilled with the first choice of books, Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned. I was even more hesitant about the choice when I read Alice’s review and it compared the book to The Catcher in the Rye, which is probably number two on my list of Worst Books Ever. But this is the point of a book club, right? To get you to read books you would otherwise gloss over. Books that you look at the cover and think, this is all about teenage angst and punk and kids rebelling just for the sake of rebellion and I am so over that. Then you read the book. And it is wonderful. And you are almost sad because you came so close to missing it entirely.

Hairstyles of the Damned follows a year in the life of Brian Oswald, a skinny junior in a south side Chicago Catholic school. He’s falling hard for Gretchen, his best friend who wears plaid skirts and chains and dyes her hair a fluorescent pink in the name of individuality. His family is coming undone – his parents no longer share the same bed – and he’s looking for something, somewhere to define him. There are the mix tapes that Gretchen makes him, as his musical tastes evolve from Guns N’ Roses to The Misfits by the end of the year. There are the girls with whom he gets progressively sexual, all while maintaining emotional strings to Gretchen. There are the new friends he makes, the ones who he might be worse off for knowing. This is high school and this is Brian’s story. But it might well be mine. It might well be yours.

I’m not saying I was at all like Brian when I was in high school. I was always the good kid, taking AP classes, part of Honor Society, and certainly never doing anything with boys. But there are these feelings in the story that I think any reader would identify with. Brian’s at a point in his life when he desperately wants to belong while simultaneously wanting to stand out. He’s finding out that those things we believe define us are often just as superficial as the dye he used to color Gretchen’s hair. And while he may not know anything about love, he’s finding out something about that thing that drives many of our actions.

But really, this could be the plot of any story. Has been the plot of many stories. What makes this one notable is that Joe Meno makes it entirely his. In Brian’s first person narrative, Meno has perfected the speak of American adolescents. His sentences run on and he uses “like” with alarming frequency, but no repeated word, no juvenile sexual innuendo feels misplaced in the entirety of the book. It’s rare that you read a book and realize that it could survive, regardless of plot, on the author’s words alone. Hairstyles of the Damned is one of those books and it is Meno’s words that make you exhale with recognition and fall in love with his story of a young, disaffected punk. They make you fall in love with your memories all over again.

The truth of it is, I would have never read this on my own. Lying on my bed, feet in the air, listening to The Used, and halfway through the book, I couldn’t believe I’d almost let this one go.

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