Gone touring this week (west coast denizens, take heed), as they say, and as such I thought it quite an appropriate time to run the following conversation. I met writer Joe Meno when he first contributed to THE2NDHAND in 2000, the year of the magazine’s inception and the beginning for Meno of material that would later become his most recent book, Hairstyles of the Damned, which if you haven’t heard of it by now, well, where have you been? It was out last year as the first title from Punk Planet Books, and has done quite well. But that story, “Jim’s a Punk Rock Loser,” told the tale of the Morlocks, a band, an idea, generated by Jim, a high-school punk rocker who enlists his metal-head buddies to form a punk rock band, all of whose songs, when the Morlocks aren’t playing Misfits covers, are about a gal named Sheryl Landry, a “friend” of Jim’s (he didn’t really know her) who shot herself in the head. Perfect, right?
Cut to August 2004, in Joe’s car on the way to Cleveland, this the first of a series of weekend jaunts to culminate a month later with a weeklong tour on the indie press touring circuit the Perpetual Motion Roadshow, Joe’s new book is out, as is THE2NDHAND’s best-of collection ALL HANDS ON, which among other contributions to the magazine includes that old story about Jim. We got to talking about it on the way out, and Meno told me he’d never write about high school again.
I did not believe him.
But, I told him, I’d never written about high school at all, but for brief nonfiction bits, a digression or two about getting busted smoking my first day ever on lunch grounds, or a made-up thing about racing cars down the main drag of my hometown at 5AM.
Hairstyles of the Damned is Meno’s third novel, and unlike Tender as Hellfire and How the Hula Girl Sings before it, it’s one of those semi-autobiographical works of fiction in which after one quick glance at the author’s history said “semi” comes highly into question. Brian, its protagonist, is a junior at the Brother Rice Catholic school on Chicago’s southwest side in the late-80s. Brian is a metal fiend, his favorite album of all time being Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction. (The book is structured like a mix tape, each chapter a little song of sorts from Brian’s life.) As Brian’s creator, Meno shares these characteristics, including another — as his junior year comes to a close, Brian has gotten into punk rock under the influence of his good friend and would-be lover Gretchen. Meno himself had the same transition long ago, and now having entered his fourth decade on this planet (he’s 30), he’s a columnist and interviewer for Chicago’s seminal Punk Planet. The DIY spirit of the culture behind much of the genre informs his life and the book itself. But more importantly, maybe, Meno’s a Chicagoan through and through, and if he’ll never write about high school again, he’s got stories to tell about the city. Our conversation on the road to Cleveland wound around these stories, taking us to an event at Mac’s Backs Paperbacks which also featured the good folks at Clamor magazine, a troop of anarchist cheerleaders, and the arch-ironic Billionaires for Bush (complete with limousine and men in tuxes), an appropriately eclectic beginning. The snippet below begins as we pass the Jay’s potato chip factory on our way south out of Chicago.
A FEW OBVIOUS THINGS YOU MAY HOWEVER ALSO NEED TO KNOW
1. TD = Todd Dills
2. JM = Joe Meno
3. Meno is also a professor of writing in the program at Columbia College Chicago.
4. TD grew up in Rock Hill, SC, far from his current Chicago home.
5. Cubs = Chicago Cubs, National League professional baseball team, cursed, north side
6. White Sox = Chicago White Sox, American League professional baseball team, less cursed, south side
7. Meno won the Nelson Algren Literary award (via the Chicago Tribune) in 2003 for a short story about an Hispanic plastics-factory worker who gets thrown out of his home.
8. You will note the ineffectual hope in the political talk at the end: remember: August 2004, swift boats, two Americas, freedom, terror, nuclear holy warriors…
TD: OK, South Side Mythology, volume 1, let’s hear it.
JM: Jay’s Potato chip factory, they used to be, in the 40s, called Jap’s–Jap’s potato chips–and then with WWII and all they had to change their name to Jay’s. I went there on a Cub scout trip. They pull the semis out, open the back gates, and there’s this ramp and it locks the wheels of the 18-wheeler, and it just tilts the semi up and all the potatoes come rolling out.
TD: The potatoes?
JM: They make potato chips out of potatoes, man.
TD: So they have semi trailers full of potatoes.
JM: Yeah, and they tilt…
TD: I thought you were gonna say, “And all these bags of chips come rolling out…”
JM: Nah, man, potatoes. That’s where they make the chips.
TD: Well, I understand that. That’s why they’re called potato chips. I heard something about Lay’s and Jay’s having a big rivalry. Actually, Jay’s sued Lay’s because of trademark or copyright infringement? Lay’s–they had these billboards around Chicago saying Lay’s was better than Jay’s but the way they said it was the exact way that Jay’s had copyrighted it, when they’d said the same thing? Does that sound right?
JM: I dunno. But Jay’s is the south-side potato chip maker. The other thing is we just passed this bank. Pullman Bank. When I was a kid in grammar school they had this pumpkin contest every year, and my mom, who’s a little crazy–she’s “touched”-she would not let us make our own pumpkins. She would do the pumpkins for us because she wanted to win so bad. So my sister and I won like every year, and in this one photograph of us winning this one particular year, and I’m on one end of this table and my sister’s on the other and there’s this other kid. And our pumpkins looked like they were clearly made by some adult and they were clearly made by the same person, you know. I had a Dracula and my sister had an Indian princess. They were just meticulous; there’s no way a third-grader could have made either one of them. And they took the winners and put them on display in the Pullman Bank. I always feel ashamed by the whole thing. I knew I didn’t win it. I felt bad, because I think those teachers knew that my mom was making the pumpkins, but they also felt bad for her, and thought that if she was that desperate, why not let her win. In that Nelson Algren story, I put that verbatim in there. It so clearly defined my mom, you know.
By a turn inaudible to the low-budget minicassette recorder I used in the car, its deficiencies compounded by an open window roaring at 70 mph, the conversation turned to American cultural segregation. In Hairstyles Brian wants to invite Gretchen to the prom, but knows that she’ll think it’s stupid and, besides, he’s too shy to get it done, anyway. Another issue at stake is that the white and black kids in the junior class can’t agree on the music for the prom, so they decide to have two separate proms, a thing less uncommon in America than you might think.
JM: I think there’s ten states left in the union that still have separate proms for high school students. They’re all below the Mason-Dixon line.
TD: Separate proms for what? Black and white, eh? I’m sure it’s not a state-sanctioned thing, right? It’s up the students, isn’t it?
JM: Oh, I don’t know, dude, the way it was explained on this program I saw was that schools don’t sponsor individual proms, parents’ organizations do.
TD: We had black folks at my prom.
JM: Well, in the book [Hairstyles], the kid…junior class has a segregated prom. It’ll be interesting to see how the people in my old neighborhood take this one.
TD: Do they know? Are they sufficiently aware of that kind of thing to know that you have a book out?
JM: I don’t think they fucking read; I don’t know.
TD: Do you think that if they found out, they would be angry?
JM: I think if they…I don’t know, other than writing nasty reviews on amazon.com, what recourse they would have.
TD: You don’t think they would be mad, right?
JM: Oh yeah, dude. There’s some really strong…
JM: No, not insults…
JM: Well, yeah there’s some assholes [laughs]. In the first part of the book, where I’m kind of setting up the neighborhood and stuff, there’s just general commentary talking about these white-power gangs and stuff and how the reason these gangs were able to flourish was because they were the kids of all these Chicago cops and firemen.
TD: And that’s in Evergreen Park?
JM: Yeah, Mt. Greenwood and Evergreen Park, so I don’t know…. It’s real funny, man, about my first book, someone wrote on amazon, “This book is based on the neighborhood Joe Meno grew up in, and all the characters are caricatures” and…they were angry, which is really funny because the book had nothing to do with any of that.
TD: Folks were living in a trailer park in the book, right? There’s no trailers on the southwest side. [Tender as Hellfire was the story of two brothers, told from the point of view of the younger, who are moved with their single mother after a divorce from a medium-sized town to a hot-dog factory's trailer park in the rural town of Tenderloin. Highly recommended.]
JM: It had nothing to do…even the characters and everything. My mom said people at her church would come up and say, “Oh, well, that character’s supposed to be” so-and-so. And she’s crazy, she’s apt to believe them or whatever. People want to see those connections.
TD: That’s the thing. People want that to be the case. So maybe it gives them something to talk about, a way into the book.
JM: But this one’s obvious, finger-pointing. I use the names of my high school and all that, so…it’ll be interesting. It’s fiction, so, I’m not worried about getting sued or anything.
TD: The stuff in there didn’t necessarily happen like that.
JM: Yeah, there’s events, but none of the characters are based on actual people I knew, really. The girl, Gretchen, didn’t exist. There’s stuff like the kid whose friend’s parents are going through a divorce and the mom puts a lock on the fridge and a payphone in her basement for the kids to use. That’s true, that totally happened.
TD: But that’s not really that unflattering or libelous or anything.
JM: Yeah, it’s just crazy.
TD: How much time do you spend down there anymore?
JM: In that neighborhood? I just go down and visit my mom. I don’t have anything to do with that place. There’s just nothing there, you know.
TD: All of your old friends are elsewhere at this point?
JM: You know, people I was in bands with and stuff, they’re still down there, but it’s in a bad way. One guy works at a video store, on and off cocaine for a while.
TD: Sounds like some people I know in my hometown.
JM: It’s funny, you know, because it’s Chicago, but the mind-set there is like that of a small town. My grandma died a couple months ago, and we went to the funeral and everything, and friends of the family I haven’t seen in like fifteen years, they come up and they’re like, “Oh, I heard about you being a writer and this and that and where are you living?” “By the ballpark, Wrigley.” And that’s a big thing, that you live on the north side by the Cubs field and not by the White Sox field. And this one guy goes, “You know, I couldn’t handle living with all those faggots, man, doesn’t that make you sick every day?” And I said, “I’ve never been threatened, beat up, or made to feel uncomfortable by homosexuals.” You know what I mean? “No homosexual ever took a swing at me.” You know what I mean? And then there’s this moment where my mom glared at me. I should have held my tongue, I guess.
TD: “Agree ‘em to death and destruction,” as [Ralph Ellison's] Invisible Man says, or rather his grandfather.
JM: That’s what he tells him on his deathbed, yeah? That’s a big difference, man, because that’s not what the Invisible Man did at all. But that book…we read it in my first novels class, which was totally white, and none of them had read it before. So they get into it, and you know, the first hundred pages you get this feeling like, oh, this guy’s angry, you know, you kinda have this white guilt while you’re reading it, you know they’re jerking him around, they give him that fucking letter. And we’re reading it, and we get down to the end where there’s a big fire and riots and shit. And I brought in a documentary about the L.A. riots from 1991 or ’92, or whenever that was, and I was just talking about, Invisible Man was written in the 50s, you know, and still, not much has changed, man, that same feeling.
TD: That book’s got this whole racial thing, but the main thing is that it’s a critique of this society that encourages you to commit yourself to something outside of yourself, an ideology or, whatever it may be, an ideology or a way of thinking that subsumes any sort of individuality.
JM: Right, where you give up your name, the whole working at a factory, for better or for worse, and whether it be left-wing or right-wing. He was a leftist…
TD: And then he’s like, “Yeah, this sucks…” And then Ras the Destroyer’s coming after him…
JM: With the spear and the horse and everything.
TD: The crusading nationalist.
JM: Marcus Garvey or something. It’s a wonderfully strange book.
TD: But yeah, that never changes. America today is almost worse in that respect. When you get the evening news as a propaganda tool. Fox News, it’s sick.
JM: Oh, they’re so far right, man.
TD: It’s laughable, you know. “Fair and Balanced.” It’s silly.
JM: Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see… I think John Kerry made a good choice with John Edwards, man.
TD: I can’t stand listening to him, to tell you the truth. He sounds like a caricature to me.
JM: Of “The Southerner.”
JM: I think that’s all right, though, too. I think that’s why George Bush got voted in in the first place, because he’s a character. He’s got this whole fucking cowboy, simple folk… You know, “I don’t know much about these things, but…” You know?
TD: Yeah. [sigh, laugh]
JM: People react to that, they wanna feel like, ‘Oh, that guy’s one of us.’ But listen, I don’t want a president that’s one of us.
TD: Yeah, I want somebody that’s got a magnificent brain in their head.
JM: A higher power, man. I want somebody who’s capable of things I’m not.
TD: Capable of making decisions…
JM: That I can’t. Right, like when you look at…
TD: …who can look at the world and realize what’s happening, because I can’t, because I can’t take it all in and make sense of it, really.
JM: It seems like John Kerry’s starting to coalesce, his personality’s starting to develop a little more with the public. He served, he really served, not on the National Guard or whatever. And fucking put his ribbons or whatever down. That’s balls, dude. And he got in with these Vietnam Vets against the war and everything. And he’s pretty fucking left, not in a bad way or anything. I appreciate that guy, you know. It’s interesting. You don’t wanna just vote the opposite of Bush. You wanna vote for somebody. People will do it anyway, but it’d be nice to want to…. You know, I didn’t really want to vote for Gore, but I did.