Monday, June 17, 2013

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine

Jonny Valentine, the not quite 12-year-old narrator of Teddy Wayne’s The Love Song of Jonny Valentine (Free Press), worries he may have already peaked, before puberty has even started.
When we meet the tween pop star—who is a thinly veiled stand-in for a young Justin Bieber—he can’t sleep and his hard partying mother is out on the town. He’s stuck in his hotel room, worrying about his stuttering North American Tour and trying to play his favorite role-playing video game to lull him to bed. The game--Warriors of Zenon, in which characters have no avatar, and are simply themselves—forms a central theme of the book and informs much of Jonny’s view of the world. No one in his life dies-they simply 'depart the realm.' And a lot of the people around him--fans, executives, tour staff--are simply villagers, there to give him experience points, with no more substance than a pixel.

This is a funny, dark, and memorable look at celebrity, pop-culture, and growing up. Even as Jonny croons away beneath a mane of perfect hair (his hair-cut in the book is called “The Jonny”…like I said, thinly veiled Bieber), his inner life is filled with the normal turmoil of girls, sex, and hormones. He has a 12 year old's temper, but a CEO's bankroll, and he's treated accordingly. Much of the tension of the story comes from Jonny's tense relationship with the record label, his mother's troubled relationship with her past, and his longing for an absent father.

 Jonny Valentine was originally published for adults, and there is a lot of cursing, sex, and a very candid look into the mind of an adolescent boy trying to grow up very fast. The book gets uncomfortable, which is part of its genius. Jonny is this highly polished, heavily produced, pre-packaged celebrity, but, as a few of his more astute fans hint, there is a deep anger beneath his bubble gum hits like Girls vs. Boys. Jonny longs to be taken seriously as an artist, but doesn't yet know he lacks the experience or perspective to create real art. Heavy questions rise up in the story, but they go down easy with Jonny's charming narration.

A scene where he eats too much and nearly gets sick over thousands of screaming teen fans, all while cursing at them under his breath, is laugh out loud funny and also a deeply disturbing comment on what we demand from celebrities...and what we expect in return. Jonny can’t see himself clearly, or see how those around him are using him, but through his eyes readers get a crystal clear look at an all-too familiar American life.

Jonny's voice is charming and smooth, even as the glossy world around him gets ugly and rough. No matter how you feel about real life pop stars, you can't help but root for Jonny to be okay. You also know that the odds are against him, even if he doesn't.

 This is a hell of a coming of age story, with a memorable and believable narrator. It's also a sharp satire and a truly compelling read for anyone who wants to look behind the packaging of their favorite pop stars. It may not be Bieber’s story, but it is something else, something truer.


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