CBR-V Review #53: The Love Song of Johnny Valentine by Teddy Wayne

This is one of those books that I a little bit about a while back and written down on my to-read “list” (which is actually about ten front-and-back pages of a Moleskine notebook) and then randomly saw in the library and, vaguely remembering it as something I should read, picking it up. That basically means I go into it with zero expectations and only a very general sense of what it’s about. I kind of like those books, sometimes, because it leaves me open to being surprised.

Jonny Valentine is very, very good, much better than I would have expected based on the plot description. The title character is a Justin Bieber-esque eleven-year-old pop sensation who is in the last few weeks of his nationwide tour to promote his second album which, so far, has not been as successful as his first. Amid pressure from both his label and his mom/manager, Jane, Jonny struggles between the normal urges and desires of a pre-teen boy and the fact that his life is, undeniably, anything but normal.

I’ll admit that even just based on that sort of cheesy summary, I would have read this book, because I’m all about celebrity stories and Behind the Music-style éxposés. This book definitely transcends that, though, and is a legitimately interesting, disturbing, and creative look at the effects of stardom. It’s slightly post-modern–not enough to turn me off (I generally don’t enjoy the style), and not enough to turn this into a satire, but just enough to give you a funny feeling that while the things being described are totally bizarre, it’s actually closer to reality than we might like to admit.

I wouldn’t necessarily call Jonny an exciting main character; he is, by virtue of his age and the first-person perspective, a very unreliable narrator, and he doesn’t have the insight or wit that makes other famous child narrators (Huck Finn, Scout Finch, among others) great. He’s more a vehicle for us to see the warped world that he lives in, and Wayne does a great job of highlighting the two opposing sides of his mind. On one hand there’s the actual eleven-year-old, who is discovering his budding sexuality, hasn’t yet gone through puberty, loves video games, and likes it when his Mom tucks him into bed. And then there’s the adult side of Jonny, who can talk about target markets and demographics like a forty-year-old business man, who’s constantly aware of his diet and exercise habits, and who acts like no eleven-year-old I’ve ever met. I went back and forth quite a bit on whether I thought Wayne should have made Jonny a little older, because again, eleven is so young. But then again, I think keeping Jonny so young gave Wayne the opportunity to make some subtle but strong points about the sexualization of the not-yet-sexual, and maybe it’s just the fact that this is less common with boys than it is with girls especially in this day and age of shows like Toddlers and Tiaras that I found an issue with it.

Anyway, my point is that unreliable narrators are always an iffy challenge for an author to take on, simply because you risk alienating the reader or having the reader not understand things. In this case, I thought it worked pretty well–it was more jarring than anything to read about things happening and understand them while Jonny couldn’t because of his age and lack of understanding. I think relating to Jonny was a bit difficult, simply because his childhood experience was so far from mine and, because this was told in the present tense, there’s no adult perspective to provide depth and insight and flesh out his childish observations. I certainly felt sorry for Jonny, but he was just kind of a blank canvas as a character in a lot of ways. Which, come to think of it, could be part of the point–as with many tween/teen idols, part of the appeal is a kind of a genericism, in order to make every fan, regardless of age or personality or physical appearance, feel like they could have a shot.

This is, again, a great book, and one that makes you think a lot. Definitely recommended, even if you’re not a fan of teeny-bopper idols.


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