Coming of Age in a Punk Rock World: Thoughts on Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned

Hairstyles of the Damned
by Joe Meno
Punk Planet Books, 2004
ISBN: 1-888451-70-X

Let me start by admitting a couple of things. First off, I really dig coming of age novels. Yeah there is that big bold German term for this genre, but let’s just call it the coming

Rocking serious punk rock in 1990s Chicago land with Joe Meno
Rocking serious punk rock in 1990s Chicago land with Joe Meno

of age story. And secondly, I had opportunity to listen to Joe Meno read at the Winter Wheat Literary Conference a few years back and missed him. To my defense, the pizza, beer, and company in Bowling Green, Ohio were among the best I’ve had. But still I missed out on hearing a writer that today I really dig.

But I digress, because this posting should be about Meno’s 2004 novel Hairstyles of the Damned. Joe Meno is one of those literary fiction guys who gets some major love in the Midwest because of his strong Chicago connections. But it is a love doesn’t tend to spread very far outside of the Midwestern literary circles. Which is sad because he does such an excellent job in capturing the characters and lives surrounding the region. Hairstyles of the Damned is the point in case for this skill.

The novel takes us to the Chicago land area in the early 1990s and follows the life of the narrator, Brian Oswalt, a Catholic high school kid through two years worth of time. Much of it explores the relationship between Brian and his best friend Gretchen, a tough as nails punk rock girl, who finds herself in a similar outcast position as Brian. Perhaps most interestingly, this connection is explored through the music of the time. Well the music, that is, of the harder variety. You know the type that the want-to-be-rock-star types in high school always strutted about talking about. This is a punk rock novel after all. And Meno does well in capturing all the periphery type stuff that goes with being young and in love with music. The mixed tapes, the symbolism of individual songs, the identification of one’s self with the larger things you always believe rock stars were putting together for you. Really, a lot of it is the stuff that makes or made you feel cool. And cool is something that Brian as outsider seems very focused on being in Meno’s book. Perhaps something that anyone who has ever been considered an outsider has felt like.

Like most great coming of age pieces of fiction, Meno’s novel explores his world from the outsider’s perspective. Brian Oswalt is by no means as much of the outsider Salinger’s Caufield, the  Meno manages to foster a connection by way of both his adherence to music (from Guns’n’Roses to Danzig to Morrissey) as well as his controlled and highly believable interiority of his characters. You can feel that sort of raw angst that teenagers get over confused or misplaced love and affection. Brian is essentially a lonely kid who wants to forge some connection to those around him. Gretchen might be that connection for him but the litany of loving the wrong people runs through the story, perhaps mirroring a sad fact of life for every outsider and insider alike.

In the very least you should give this book read because the movie version is currently in pre-production. The fact of the matter is that you could be cool before cool in the way that Meno may have envisioned Brian Oswalt in his teenage world.

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