Page after page of Chicago punk
September 8, 2004
BY MARY HOULIHAN Staff Reporter
When Chicago author Joe Meno was shopping around for a publisher for his latest book, Hairstyles of the Damned, he received a pulse-quickening offer from MTV Books. But he soon discovered it was an offer with ridiculous strings attached.
Meno had written a semiautobiographical, punk, coming-of-age story set on the South Side. Filled with references to dozens of bands and mix tape set lists, the book's heart and soul is driven by a teenager's life-changing discovery of punk's social and political message.
But as part of the deal, MTV Books wanted Meno to change all the names and use contemporary bands, namely MTV bands.
"I was pretty stunned by the request," Meno said. "It would have meant moving the story forward 14 years and basically rewriting the whole deal. But I did spend one restless night thinking about it. All that money, all that publicity."
Instead, Meno, the author of two previous novels (Tender as Hellfire, How the Hula Girl Sings), stayed true to his vision and found a deal more to his liking with Punk Planet, a Chicago-based magazine eager to venture into its first publishing deal. It was a wise decision. Hairstyles is receiving favorable reviews and recently was chosen for the Discover New Writers Program of Barnes & Noble, which will prominently feature the book in its stores nationwide. New orders already have pushed the book into a second printing.
Fans and critics are comparing Hairstyles of the Damned to The Catcher in the Rye. Meno's alter ego, Brian Oswald, is a modern-day Holden Caulfield. He lives in Evergreen Park, attends Brother Rice High School and hangs out in the parking lot of Haunted Trails at 79th and Harlem with his pal, pink-haired Gretchen, with whom he's secretly in love (or thinks he is). Music permeates all their lives. It's a funny, sweet and, at times, hard-hitting story with a punk vibe.
Meno says once he latched onto the idea of the mix tape, the creation of which is a central theme in the novel, the story began to flow. In dozens of chapters that range from a paragraph to several pages, Meno captures the exact flow of a mix tape, only this time in words.
"I thought it would be really cool to write a book the way you put together a mix tape," explained Meno. "There's the short song, the slow song, the fast song, the love song. That helped the book have this direct, chatty, conversational tone, which is the one thing that I think I took away from Salinger's book."
Dan Sinker, the publisher of Punk Planet and the book's editor, calls Meno's style "word crack." Once you start reading, you can't stop.
"It's a universal story," Sinker said. "Just about everyone has felt this kind of alienation when they were younger. That lost feeling of who am I and where am I going."
Meno, the winner of the 2003 Nelson Algren Award for short fiction, admits that he's pleasantly surprised that Hairstyles is attracting a wide range of readers, from teenagers to parents and beyond. Those basic teenage problems seem to be resonating through the generations.
"If I had to tell you what the book was about in one word, it would be 'belonging,' " Meno said. "Wanting to belong to something but knowing that it's almost impossible to totally belong. That's a pretty human concept that I think outlives the specific time period of the book. It's really about any kid who's lonely and wants to feel like he's connected to something and someone."
In his teenage years, Meno's musical tastes were similar to Brian's: In the beginning was heavy metal, followed by weird stoner rock and then illuminating punk rock, which he says changed his life. At 14, he moved on to punk bands like Minor Threat and the Dead Kennedys, bands that addressed very obvious social and political issues.
"It was a huge breakthrough for me," said Meno, who is also a musician and playwright. "It totally changed the way I thought about music and what it represented."
Another life-changing breakthrough was his decision to become a writer, something that at first seemed "intellectual and far off." Meno studied film ("It seemed like I could probably write a screenplay") at the University of Illinois but eventually transferred to the fiction writing department at Columbia College Chicago.
"Like the bands changed my life, coming to Columbia as a student had the same effect," said Meno, who sports a tattoo of St. Lucy, the patron saint of writers, on his arm. "I was surrounded by other writing students who were highly motivated, and that made me want to be a better writer."
Meno, now a young-looking 30-year-old, loved Columbia so much he stayed. Sitting on a couch in the lobby of the fiction writing department, he could be mistaken for a student. But he has been teaching creative writing at the school full time since he was 27.
When Meno was offered the job, he had never worked in an office before. He laughs when asked about his work history, which includes the Alley, a curiously weird store on Belmont Avenue that sells punk paraphernalia, among other things, and the classy Wells Street flower store A New Leaf, where he was a deliveryman. He had been teaching part time, but going from "a job" to "a career" was a major mind shift for Meno.
"It wasn't a hard transition but it was a big transition," said Meno, laughing. "I love my job so much that every time I walk down the hall to my office, I expect to see a note on the door saying 'Yeaaah, we don't know what we were thinking; this was just a crazy experiment.' And you know, I wouldn't even be mad about it. It's just such a great gift to be able to talk about what you love with other people who love that same thing just as much."
JOE MENO READINGS
When: 8 tonight
Where: The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia
Phone: (773) 227-4433
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 14
Where: Barnes & Noble, 1441 W. Webster
Phone: (773) 871-3610
Excerpt from 'Hairstyles of the Damned':
"Gretchen's mix-tapes, her music choices, were like these songs that seemed to be all about our lives, but in small random ways that made sense on almost any occasion. Like "Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?" Maybe it meant I should tell Gretchen how I was feeling. Or maybe it meant I should just go home. To me, the tapes were what made me like her, then love her so much: the fact that in between the Misfits and the Specials, she would have a song from the Mamas and the Papas, "Dream a Little Dream of Me" or something like that. Those mix-tapes were the secret soundtrack to how I was feeling or what I thought about almost everything."