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HAIRSTYLES OF THE DAMNED / Joe Meno

HAIRSTYLES OF THE DAMNED / Joe Meno. 2004 (270 pgs)

First Ten Pages =  3.7% of total book

First Sentence:  “The other problem I had was that I was falling in love with my best friend, Gretchen, who I thought the rest of the world considered fat.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice: First person narrative of main character. Past tense.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: It is interesting that the author places the reader immediately into the first person narrator’s mind by announcing “the other problem,” before we learn the narrator’s description or gender. The reader learns more about Gretchen, who is driving the “crappy car” than we learn about the narrator. Gender remains obscured. It is only by process of assumption in the first several paragraphs that one gradually gathers that the narrator is a dude. It is very clear he is in love with Gretchen. It is also pathetic that he is so concerned about how big she is.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages: The second chapter takes an interesting deviation from narrative story. Not only does the style shift to a diary entry / mix tape list, it is written by Gretchen. As it is not narration per se (it could be something that the narrator has appropriated), it is an indicator of the multiple styles and mirroring of erratic adolescent actions that are to come. In the third chapter the reader is brought more specifically into the plot through the narrator’s observations of Gretchen’s behavior toward another girl who has been flirting with a guy she is hot for.

Language: The narrator, who is also the main character, Brian Oswald, prepares lists of dream mix tapes and punk band names in separately standing chapters with short editorial comments like “awesome” and  “bad-ass.” From the self-deprecating disclosure, which is first person, it is fairly obvious Brian is a high school student and self-described band geek. His language indicates that he would like to view himself as a slacker, behavior his mom will not allow, counter indicates that he has much room to slack off.

Setting: In the opening we are placed in the immediacy of Gretchen’s “crappy” white Ford Escort, which provides a very close proximity for us to observe Brian’s attitude toward Gretchen and his conflicting physical desire and disgust. In the car, the reader is prepped for Anyplace, High School, USA, but as the action opens up, the novel places the reader in the south side of Chicago. It is interesting to note that the reader only hears the extreme vocal and dialectical style of Chicago’s south side in the minor and secondary characters. If Brian narrated the story with a noticeable regionalism it would detract from the emotional impact of his story.

Character: All the characters are young. Even the adults are immature and adolescent. Brian, and all the boys to some degree, is highly focused on sex and how to acquire it. When the story doesn’t focus on sex, it focuses on music, bands, punk culture, clothing, and if there is time remaining, schoolwork. It is fairly clear from the opening pages that Brian’s major conflict will occur because of his admiration for Gretchen and his distain for her physical appearance. As a self professed “secondary character,” Brian provides the reader with a vantage to observe the actions of his friends and fellow students and their interactions.

Structure (Rhythm, Tension): An exciting immediacy peppers the opening (and I suspect the entire) of this story. Right from the first the reader is plunked into Brian’s running dialogue with himself and those around him. At times he is character. At other times he is observer. As in a Broadway musical, when the pressure of any particular situation, albeit the relatively immature pressures of high school, and words no longer suffice, music takes over. The author includes many references to music from the eighties and earliest nineties that both indicate period and emotional state of mind.

Thematic Preamble: The narrative eye is extremely close to the action of the story. Unlike with a more distant narrative character or a third person narrator, HAIRSTYLES OF THE DAMNED does not provide a clear thematic preamble in the way that something like CIDER HOUSE RULES does. Brian’s emotional immediacy and the fact that adolescents are more prone to display their emotions close to the surface, the reader does not get a sense of depth or thematic maturity at first. I suspect that the course of the book will offer much more in the way of journey toward emotional maturity, supporting what I see as a major theme of this work, which is simply adjusting to growing up and becoming responsible to one’s self.

Intention: Regardless of any maturity deficit, there is strong indication that Brian and Gretchen’s friendship will be put to a test. That Brian begins the story in the middle of a series of problems (see first sentence) indicates that there will be plenty of problems to replace any that might be solved over the course of the story. I suggest that regardless of the “slacker” tone there are significant hormonal variables as play. At quick glance through the book, it seems that the action covers about one year – from junior to senior year – an incredibly (in)formative period of one’s life. The opening pages reflect both the arrogance and idiocy of minor adolescent life, as well as the limitless possibility, even on the south side of Chi-town.

Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond page ten: He is seventeen at the opening. He will be eighteen by the end of the story.

Random Comments: The fourth chapter (which starts on the eleventh page, but I had to read it anyway) is a very funny punk-nerd list called “Causes of the Revolutionary War were many,” which gradually deviates into “Bad-ass names for a metal band….” Totally awesome beginning.

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