Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Coming Of Rage

Sometimes, life is just ugly

By Shelly Ridenour

APRIL 26, 1999: 

Tender as Hellfire by Joe Meno, St. Martin's Press, $22.95, 256 pages

Sometimes, life is just ugly. Ugly enough to make you wonder how, if there really is a God, he can let it be. Just ask Dough, the 11-year-old anything-but-a-hero of Joe Meno's new novel, "Tender as Hellfire."

During the course of nearly 250 pages, nothing good happens to this kid. His dad is dead. His mother has just moved him and his older brother, Pill, away from their decent home and into a "dirty gray trailer" to be with her boyfriend. The boyfriend treats everybody pretty damn nice, but Dough can't accept it because of his unwavering belief the guy will inevitably leave. Everyone at school hates him, except the girl who smells like urine. The object of his puppy love desire is the trailer park whore who babysits him; while he gets to sleep (with Pill) in her bed, he also has to listen to the coital bangs and grunts of her coupling on the couch with the cowboys who show up in the middle of the night. The local deputy has got it in for the brothers, who dabble in arson to loosen aggression's grip. Nightmares cause him to wet the bed. Even the one good thing that comes into his life - a dog - is a lazy, one-eyed, three-legged mutt doomed to meet a tragic end.

What the fuck?

This is Southern gothic as filtered through a Midwestern trailer park in the seventies, gritty and painful and just plain ugly. How jaded you are determines whether or not you call it black comedy. It is exactly the kind of life you imagined the tough-eyed metalhead kids in high school having -- the ones who spent lunch smoking in the bathroom partly because they were too proud to use lunch tokens and partly because they were avoiding getting beaten up by jarhead jocks.

It is depressing, without a happy or even hopeful ending, and it is some kind of stretch of the imagination to call it a coming-of-age story -- the kid doesn't arc, he just flat-lines along. The more his eyes open to the adult world, the more things stay the same.

Despite all this, or maybe because of it, this is a book that deserves attention. Meno, the young Columbia College MFA student whose debut was snapped up by St. Martins even as he still delivers flowers, wears his flair for description on his sleeve.

And that's what makes "Tender as Hellfire" both effective and palatable - he sucks you in even as you're shielding your eyes. Sometimes it works against him; occasionally the remembrances of Dough the (presumably) adult narrator and the thoughts of Dough the kid get jumbled, even in the same paragraph. It is jarring to hear the kid call his fifth-grade teacher a "long-legged pedagogue." Still, this is the best kind of career debut - a quiet explosion, promising without being so joltingly great that the sophomore jinx is expected. We're hooked.

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