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book review

‘The Love Song of Jonny Valentine’ by Teddy Wayne

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An epigraph that opens “The Love Song of Jonny Valentine” comes from a 2010 conversation between Justin Bieber and a reporter with Interview magazine. “I want my world to be fun,” the Biebs told the journalist. “No parents, no rules, no nothing. Like, no one can stop me. No one can stop me.”

On its surface, this statement couldn’t be more pedestrian — what 16-year-old doesn’t want his freedom, and who, for that matter, doesn’t want to have fun? Upon closer scrutiny, cracks appear, as well as a hint of sadness. Who’s trying to stop Justin Bieber? Who would try and stop one of America’s most commercially successful recording artists, plucked as a preteen from the torpors of an anonymous childhood to the Olympus of celebrity on the merits of his dance moves and his sweet, sweet voice? More importantly, is Justin Bieber having any fun?

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“The Love Song of Jonny Valentine” is Teddy Wayne’s attempt to work out these very questions. The novel’s protagonist, Jonny, is an 11-year-old crooner with millions of fans, a world-famous haircut (“the Jonny”), and a fustian nickname (“the Angel of Pop”). Girls weep when he brings them onstage, and designers ply him with free clothes. But his mother controls his every breath. The weight of admiring eyes bears down upon him, as does the knowledge that the livelihoods of dozens of people depend on his continued success. He can’t eat and not think about calories. He can’t be alone in public, harried as he is by the threat of child predators and camera phones. Not so fun after all.

When the novel opens, Jonny is alone in a hotel room playing a video game and devising a way to break into his mother’s room to score some sleeping pills. The rest of the plot concerns his attempts to reconnect with his estranged father while coping with the screaming pressures of stardom, a frightening mother, and nascent pubescence. In spite of these miseries, the sad, conscripted life of a child star turns out to be a terrific vehicle for a satiric novel.

The premise might be familiar from thousands of basic cable documentaries, and the plot might bear striking and uncomfortable parallels to “The Dirt,” the autobiography of teenage wastrels Mötley Crüe, but it works. “The Love Song of Jonny Valentine” is a showstopper. It is also a fitting sequel to “Kapitoil,” Wayne’s zingy debut about another soul who doesn’t quite understand the machine he’s been plugged into.

The book’s greatest triumph — and there are many — is Jonny’s voice, which falls somewhere between bright-eyed kid and jaded industry veteran (of course, he is both). His narration is riddled with the marketing speak he has internalized in order to transcend the “teen demo” and achieve the “cultural penetration” that results from “broad spectrum appeal,” even though such a feat may be outside his “talent reach.”

But all the professionalism in the world can’t keep his dawning consciousness at bay, nor his observations about the hypocrisies that surround him. To wit: “It’s funny how half my songs are about liking girls who don’t wear makeup, and I’m a boy who wears makeup.” Fans of George Saunders will recall “Jon,” his story of a teenage boy enslaved to a corporate Moloch.

In addition to an exquisite rendering of Jonny’s growing awareness, the novel provides other delights. There are Jonny’s songs —“U R Kewt,” “RSVP (To My Heart),” “Guys vs. Girls” — each a plausible teen hit with spot-on lyrics. There are cameos from celebrity caricatures like hipster sellouts the Latchkeys and pop MC Mi$ter $mith. And somehow, as unlikely as it seems, there is a scathing critique of the contemporary mediasphere, from blogs to august weeklies.

Wayne, a regular contributor to the New Yorker’s “Shouts and Murmurs,” includes snippets of magazines articles that Jonny deflates with naïve precision as when, after reading a review of his concert in The New York Times, he pegs the whole of contemporary music criticism: “Normally I don’t pay attention to the critics, because they either decide from the start that they hate me, or they come up with a lot of big words to explain why they actually like me, because they can’t just come out and admit they’re into my music.”

What catapults the novel from the clever satire demo to broad-spectrum appeal are plenty of genuinely affecting moments. As Jonny realizes he has the money and power of an island nation, he feels the disappointments of his life more keenly and asserts himself in ways that aren’t anywhere near family friendly; we discover he is a flawed child in addition to an exploited one and empathize with him because of it. In the end, “The Love Song of Jonny Valentine” is a serious book that is way more fun than the life of a child star.

Eugenia Williamson, a writer and editor living in Somerville, can be reached at eugenia.williamson@gmail.com.
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