I know I had it coming,
I know I can’t be free,
but those people keep moving,
and that’s what tortures me.
—Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”
In the acknowledgements in Joe Meno’s third novel, Hairstyles of the Damned, Meno writes, “You Suck It: Judith Regan. Badly. And all you other bad publishing corporations. Be ready, the end is nigh.” Regan Books, Judith Regan’s infamously commercial imprint of Harper Collins, originally published How the Hula Girl Sings in hardcover in September of 2001. After a wait of four years, it’s finally out in trade paper from indie Akashic Books, also the publisher of Hairstyles.
I emailed Meno to ask what was up with the delay and the acknowledgement. He told me that a paperback version Hula, which was well-received and decent selling as a hardcover, was planned at Regan Books, but the editor in charge of the project “was constantly being threatened and harassed by Judith Regan until she quit without notice”, and the paperback release was dropped out of “spite”. It’s a sad story, because any book dedicated to Johnny Cash deserves to be read in the park on a sunny afternoon, and cloth bindings lack the festive portability appropriate for a delicious slice of literary pulp like Hula.
Fans of Hairstyles of the Damned should be warned that Hula is very different novel. While the former is a warm coming of age as a punk story, the latter is a sinister potboiler in reverse. It opens with the crime and pulls us along through the perpetrator’s attempts to escape perdition. The pop cache of Hairstyles is replaced by an eerie quantity of dead birds and gory injuries. I have to admit that I approached this book with a pout. Once Meno delivered a yummy little story replete with memories of the 1980s punk scene, it’s hard to look to the same author for a nourish redemption story, but it’s worth the effort to abandon punk typecasting.
We follow Luce Lemay as he is released from a three-year prison stint for a robbery that resulted in vehicular manslaughter of an infant in her carriage. He is wracked with guilt, but steadfast that he’ll be one of the few cons to turn himself around. However, his good intentions run into violence and death at every turn, and he doesn’t exactly go out of his way to avoid trouble. He takes up with a spunky waitress with a sharp tongue and an aggressive ex-fiancé who is none too pleased by Luce’s involvement with his lady. Enemies from his prison days circle menacingly around his attempts at a new life and a feud with a local child-abusing father contribute to the numerous eruptions of violence throughout the book.
For the brutal murder of a teenage girl, Luce’s best friend Junior Breen has served 25 years. Junior got a head start out of prison and set up a life for the two of them in Luce’s hometown of La Harpie, Illinois, including jobs at the gas station and rooms at the creepy St. Francis Hotel. La Harpie is luridly described as:
A place of a kind of quiet villainy and secret lust. A place where the dirty dreams of every 12-year-old-man-child were visible on the bus station’s bathroom walls in hand-scrawled tattoos of ladies with oversized breasts and inappropriate female genitalia, inaccurately portrayed as a singularly dangerous triangle of doom.
Perhaps not the best locale for a miserably repentant murderer such as Junior.
Everyone has a sad story in Hula,, and that includes the innkeeper at the St. Francis hotel, a nutty old bag who came to believe that she is St. Francis of Assisi after her husband shot her lover and himself. She has taken to dressing small animals, particularly birds, in sweaters and burying them in cigar boxes or hanging them in her hotel. Dead animals weave a haunting motif around Luce’s narrative: birds fly into the gas station window anticipating violence and Junior believes he is being haunted by the little corpses surrounding him at the hotel. I’m sure it doesn’t help any that the hotel is covered in Catholic images. It has to be hard to forget that one craves impossible forgiveness when surrounded by saints and sacred hearts.
As Junior and Luce’s redemptive journeys depart in course, the book becomes darker, deeper, and more unsettling. Luce aims to live a normal life with his waitress girlfriend while never forgetting his tattoos and dark past, yet Junior is shut down by shame and ceases to shoot for goodness, instead returning to a pattern of violence as punishment for men as awful to the core as he. The gap between the men is greater than the differential horrors of their crimes. Luce knows how the hula the girl sings, but Junior struggles to hear it.
How the Hula Girl Sings is great pulp, complete with prison stories, hookers, and sweaty violence. Though crime novels are not a usual part of my literary samplings I was thoroughly enthralled throughout. Joe Meno is a great writer, and can even keep me hooked when he isn’t pandering to my musical sensibilities. I found a book prominently featuring dead birds almost as enthralling as a book about the Dead Kennedys, and that’s a feat.
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