Book Review - Girls, Combat Boots, and Mixtapes: Joe Meno's Hairstyles of the Damned

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Joe Meno's Hairstyles of the Damned realistically capture the emotions, naivety, and angst of going through high school. The novel, Meno's third, follows the narrator, Brian through a year of experiences with skateboarding, family problems, and fist fighting. The book is published by magazine press Punk Planet, which Meno often writes for, and Akashic Books, who brought the world Dance of Days and The Anti-Capitalist Reader. You get exactly what you'd expect from such a market: an accurate account of growing up in the early 90s.

A few things make this book unique. The most obvious element is the music. Through the novel, Meno provides tracklists for mixtapes, uses Brian's favorite lyrics to develop the plot, and uses musical preferences to characterize the grab bag of losers, young punks, and stoners. As Brian develops and becomes more aware of and philosophical about his surroundings, the reader sees his musical tastes shift. This culminates in the final scene, a Halloween party, where Brian seems to decide that music is just another kind of costume.

Another of the book's strengths lies in the richness of the plot. Meno isn't content to give Brian a set of problems with girls or intimidating jocks but also sets up conflicts with the narrator's parents, who are struggling to maintain a relationship; various problems in his friends' families; turmoil within the school; financial difficulties; etc. Although the action takes place in Chicago's Southside, Brian's (sometimes passive) participation within the community makes it feel like the tightly-knit web of a small town. He seems to be connected to everyone and everything, building an immense weight which the reader also feels, making the story more layered and Brian's character more believable.

Meno's style also adds to the authenticity of Brian. The book feels more like a teenager's journal, complete with fantasy band names, slang, and make-out advice. Brian also sometimes directly addresses the reader, almost as if this were a conversation. In one chapter, he offers tips on hair-dying. The language is loose, but it feels organic and cohesive. Towards the end of the novel, Meno relies less upon the obsessive lists abundant in the beginning. It's unclear if he was more intent upon moving the plot along or just overlooked such details in a rush to finish the book.

The novel is not without its faults. Certain plot elements often fall to the wayside, while others seem to conveniently resolve at the same time Meno places the conclusion. Meno's style can sometimes be distracting, primarily when he uses several like's on one page. I admire the author's loyalty to the speaker's voice, but he sometimes forgets that the book is actually going to be read by an educated audience.

From the first few pages, when Brian tries to explain his admiration to his friend Gretchen, who's too busy listening to the Clash to hear him, I fell in love with Brian and the book. Meno's style and dense plot is entertaining, heart-felt, and thought-provoking. As a former 90s teenage, I identified with much of the story, sometimes to an eerie extent. Hairstyles of the Damned is everything a novel should be: fun, emotional, and educational.

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