I enjoyed Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno very much. I would have enjoyed it more with a serif font. Perhaps I am being shallow, but I don’t think so. Serif fonts are more readable in long printed text and with the san serif, I frequently lost my place on the the page. Coupled with the smaller than usual point size of the type and occasional use of handwriting fonts and the book design seemed to this reader like a sign that said “No Grown-ups allowed.”
So, it was a struggle to read the book, but the book was well worth the struggle. Hairstyles of the Damned is the story of Brian Oswald, a seventeen year old boy growing up on the south side of Chicago in 1990 and 1991. Brian is very much a typical adolescent boy, trying to fit in and trying to stand out at the same time. The story is organized around the big events of the school years, homecoming and prom. Those events loom large because there will be pictures that will freeze him in time–forever to be judged by the merits or demerits of his date.
Told in the first person, his voice is authentic and honest. By authentic, I mean he is repetitive at times, often banal, frequently shallow and of course, his chronic obsession with girls and sex is dwarfed by his obsession with himself. He rants, plots never-gonna-happen revenge, and imagines improbably fame as a musician. He thinks a lot but his ideas are inchoate–he does not yet dare to follow his ideas to the realizations that, when they come, might draw him into adulthood.
Music is a huge part of the book. Brian is coming of the age during the era of the mixtape, when boys and girls expressed their inner selves by compiling a cassette tape that bared their souls. A mixtape could be a declaration of love, an explosion of rage, or a cri de couer. Metal and punk mixtapes are as much a part of the story as the people and often are the most articulate emotional expressions.
While Brian is the main character in Hairstyles of the Damned, the secondary characters are vital and vivid, fully-realized characters as well. The story of Mike Madden for example, is a compelling view of parental malpractice. In a stereotypical midlife divorce, Mike’s father dumps his mother and his responsibilities, trading them in on a convertible and a young girlfriend. Mike’s Mom displaces her anger on her children, disavowing any responsibility for them and we see Mike go from an engaged and bright student to a sullen, violent drop out.
Brian is worried the same may happen to him as his parents’ marriage is falling apart–his father’s despair and mother’s unhappiness are constant static in the background of his life. Meanwhile, he wants to get laid, have a girlfriend and be accepted. He’s in love with Gretchen, the pink-haired punk rock girl, but she’s fat and would no photograph well for Homecoming. Besides, she is interested in someone else.
It’s all a muddle and mostly Brian muddles through, following, observing, but not seldom having agency in his own life, following his friends, claiming attributes, opinions and skills to fit in. Oh, it is all so very adolescent and really, that is the magic of this book. It does not feel like a novel written by an adult. It feels like we are prying in Brian’s diary, spying on the thoughts of a real adolescent.
The book is eventful, but these are the events of ordinary life.The cataclysms are small and ordinary–divorce, fights, friendships forged and broken, relationships developed and cast aside–the stuff of high school. And of courses, for Brian who is in high school they matter so damn much.
I recommend Hairstyles of the Damned, particularly to music loves and even more particularly to punk music lovers. Thoughtful curation of music is an art form and Brian (and Joe Mena) excel. I also think it succeeds in evoking authentic adolescent angst with empathy but not sentimentality. I enjoyed it, but I know I would have enjoyed it more with a kinder typeface.