Sometimes–particularly when you have as many of them as I do–books can sit on your shelf for years. Or end up wedged in piles. I pile books (and comics and magazines and paperwork and important documents and mail) in precarious towers, pulpy inukshuks signifying–well, absent-mindedness, usually. Later, in the midst of other things, you happen upon some long-lost treasure and end up picking it up again. This happened with Joe Meno’s Tender as Hellfire.
I’d read and read and really enjoyed another of Meno’s novels, The Boy Detective Fails. That novel encapsulated a lot of my interests at the time–postmodern detective fiction, playful remixing of childhood favourites like Nancy Drew, the small assassinations of failure–and approached its subject with the gauge locked halfway between magic realism and flat-out surrealism. Consequently, when a friend was going down to Portland and stopping at Powell’s Books–then a mythical, mystical nexus to me–I asked him to look for some Meno. He did, but then the product of that quest fell into obscurity–
(like Sauron and that damn ring, I suppose.)
Tender as Hellfire is a much earlier novel–Meno’s first, in fact–and it is consequently rougher around the edges. That isn’t a bad thing, though. It is extremely episodic, straddling the line between short stories that bleed together and a more holistic novel.
Pill-Bug is thirteen years old, and Dough (our narrator) is ten. They have been dragged from Duluth, Texas to a town called Tenderloin so that their mother’s boyfriend French (a subject of the boys’ concentrated hate, despite being her first boyfriend not to be a complete asshole) can find work. Pill may also have been partially responsible, setting a fire near the end of their time in Duluth.
Essentially, the book is about Pill and Dough trying to make a go of it in a new town, living in a trailer park, with Pill on that strange and angry bluff called puberty and Dough struggling to find himself as the space between him and his brother fills with alien distance. Stories exploring masculinity, particularly in the milieu that Meno is drawing on, are not uncommon but Tender as Hellfire manages to balance by developing complicated relationships between Dough and the women in his world, notably a girl in his class named Lottie who both repels and comforts him.
Where Meno excels–and this is something that he’d return to in The Boy Detective Fails and the rest of his later work–is the blurry, hazy line between the natural and the supernatural. While never crossing the line into the fantastical, Dough’s perception of the events and his vivid ten-year-old imagination imbues everything around him with malevolence; he sees dark shapes in the night and is haunted by the Devil and how he believes his father died. For me, the high point of the novel was a sequence in which Dough–forced, for the first time, into hanging out with Lottie–is taken to an abandoned “haunted” barn, the site of a horrible local tragedy. There, beside the remains of a long-dead horse, Dough sees the Devil, an event that leaves a deep scar in the narrative.
It’s strange to look back at a book which has been followed by a fair number of younger siblings, siblings that have been more developed and stronger and healthier. The chapters never bleed into each other enough, we fail to get as much depth out of Pill-Bug as we’d like, their mother doesn’t quite get the dimensionality that she craves. Lottie. There isn’t enough Lottie, who is set-up as an interesting character but spends much of the book skirting along the edges of it. The climax doesn’t the perfect pitch and the promise of the book’s opening never really comes to anything.
However: I appreciated taking a sojourn back to the early point in Meno’s career, being more familiar with his later work; you can see the movements towards later strength. Even if it doesn’t hang together as well as it could, Dough’s voice is incredibly strong and the details are engaging enough–particularly the recurring image of Pill-Bug’s face, with a horrible black scab where an eyebrow lost to fire would have been–that I gobbled the novel up, enjoying it even as it recognized its flaws. It felt like reading something strange and awkward and precious, pulled from the earth, still gritty even when reflecting light.
(Tender as Hellfire was first published by Punk Planet in 1999.)