Joe Meno’s portrayal of life in a Midwestern trailer park is at once bleak and vivid, and both serve it well. But Tender as Hellfire is also a disjointed collection of episodic turns that never wind their way into a coherent narrative, and that ultimately undoes much of what is powerful in Meno’s characters. That is no small letdown, as the characters are powerful, indeed.
At the center of it all is Dough, the narrator and thus the most developed character. His brother is Pill-Bug, and obviously these boys were not born under a particularly good sign. Echoes of The Outsiders, with Ponyboy and Sodapop parading around as actual names, are present. If you can imagine the greasers from S. E. Hinton’s classic, you’re not far off the mark in imagining Dough and his brother, Pill-Bug.
Their father, who died smuggling cigarettes along some lonely stretch of Texas highway, gave them impossible names for a reason. He wanted them to be tough, and nobody is tougher than a kid who has to live with the ridicule of being named Pill-Bug.
So it was that our narrator, an 11-year-old, and his brother just a couple of years older, were broken from the very beginning. Cursed is how Dough describes himself, his family, virtually everybody he knows. He’s young, still young enough to idolize the tramp babysitter they spend Friday nights with, young enough to have a crush on his teacher, and young enough to see his brothers self-destruction in romantic overtones. But for his age, he carries a kind of wisdom, or perhaps its just foreboding.
Their mother moves her boys from their lives in Duluth to the nowhere town of Tenderloin, where her boyfriend, French, has a job at the local meat-packing plant. They cluster into a trailer park of the ugly, depressing variety. Is there any other kind? The boys don’t take well to their new surroundings, and their surroundings don’t take particularly well to them.
There’s Val, the aforementioned babysitter who entertains one man after the other once the boys have gone to sleep. A few trailers away, their mother and French entertain swingers just like themselves. For a brief time there is the old widower next door, El Rey del Perdito, who plays his tango music too loud and dances in the nude. A few miles down the dusty road is one of those convenient stores, the ones where you can’t quite figure out how they stay in business. Presiding over its counter is Chief, the alcoholic Native American who’ll sell cigarettes to the underage.
It’s a colorful lot of characters, and like so many things in places like this, they simply merge into a tacky wash of hopelessness. It’s a bleak landscape, and the only real bright spot in the whole affair, if you could call it a bright spot, is Lottie. She’s deranged, unhinged, the girl who gets picked on in school. For reasons all too obvious to the reader and utterly unfathomable to Dough, she decides to become his friend. It doesn’t matter to her whether he’s interested in such a relationship, and so there she is, following him home from school and pestering him with question after question.
That all of this follows her first period, a humiliating affair that ends up with her in a tree throwing stones at Dough’s head, is par for the course in Tender as Hellfire. Nobody is quite right. But in the mind of Dough, it’s a sort of romantic hell, and his voice brought alive by Meno’s prose is so earnest, so aching to feel the connection of those broken souls that surround him, makes us want for the romanticism to win out.
It doesn’t, and if that spoils the ending for you, the point has missed you completely. This book concludes predictably, in the cosmic sense. Everyone is essentially destroyed, consumed in a climax that isn’t quite climactic, even with the inclusion of devils, ghosts, and nighttime arson. But it has no real narrative to speak of. Each chapter is an episode, and if one leads to another, it does so only in the chronological sense. The plot is largely absent. The characters are the thing.
That works, in a way. Some critics have attacked the portraits painted of Val and Chief and the rest as overwrought, exhausting. Meno is more skillful than they’ve given him credit for. Look at where these people reside, in the most static of places. They’re homes can move, but they never do. They simply go about their lives, waiting for something inevitable to consume them. In that regard, it’s almost appropriate that we begin to feel the heavy weight of each character bogging us down.
The back of the book says the two brothers “learn that even broken things can be perfect.” That’s marketing, folks. In the end, Dough learns that his brother was wrong, that they are not cursed, and that their lives are their own making. Pill-Bug is not so lucky, nor is anyone else in the book. As for the broken things, they’re not perfect. Far from it. But they have a quality about them, maybe even a beautiful quality.
That may be the best description for the book; broken, imperfect, flawed, but it has a quality about it.