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Monday, November 20

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Airbags

"Being punk meant having something to fight against."
--Hairstyles of the Damned

Those who were teenagers in the early '90s remember a time when hair metal bands like Poison and Guns N' Roses shared the top of the charts with pop-idols like New Kids on the Block and M.C. Hammer. Meanwhile, a new generation of punks was discovering bands like the Misfits and Dead Kennedys. The first selection of the Gapers Block Book Club, Hairstyles of the Damned, captures this era in a coming-of-age story that understands that high school cliques are often defined by music one listens to.

The book has been called "The Catcher in the Rye for the new millennium." It may seem like a hackneyed comparison, much like the way every new boy band is dubbed "the next Beatles." In this case, however, the comparison is fitting. Hairstyles of the Damned is a semi-autobiographical tale that follows the exploits of Brian Oswald, a student at Brother Rice High School on Chicago's South Side. Like Holden Caufield, Brian narrates the story, and the reader follows him as he falls in love (maybe) with pink-haired Gretchen, hangs out at Haunted Trails, gets laid, commits petty crime and thinks up bad-ass horror movie titles. But the unifying thread through his experiences is music.

Author Joe Meno, like his alter-ego, attended Brother Rice in the early '90s, and Brian's discovery of bands such as the Misfits and Minor Threat echoes Meno's own experiences. In an interview for the Columbia Chronicle, Meno admitted he feared the book "was just this kind of love letter to a specific time and period" and that older and younger generations may not relate to the story. He need not have worried. Brain Oswald's search for identity and his desperate need to belong, matched only by his teenage lust, has had cross-generational appeal.

Hairstyles of the Damned is Meno's third novel. He wrote his first book, Tender as Hellfire, while he was still an undergraduate at Columbia College Chicago. He was only 24 when it was published. His second novel, How the Hula Girl Sings, was published just two years later. Both were well received by critics. In addition, Meno won the 2003 Nelson Algren Award for his short story, "Midway." Currently, he is also an instructor in Columbia College Chicago's fiction writing department.

According to interviews, Meno was approached by MTV Books when looking for a publisher for Hairstyles. MTV, however, demanded Meno change the names of the bands to current bands in heavy rotation on MTV. Meno turned down the offer and found a better deal with Akashic Books. Hairstyles of the Damned is the first title to be distributed under the publisher's new imprint with Chicago-based Punk Planet magazine.

Despite the fact that the independent Akashic Books lacked the marketing muscle of corporate publishers, the book has been a major success. Released last August with an original print run of 4,000 copies, Hairstyles of the Damned is now in its fourth printing, with over 30,000 copies in print. Barnes & Noble also gave the book a hand when the chain selected it for its Discover New Authors Program. According to the company, the book was its number two fiction title in the New Authors Program during the holiday season, just behind Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell.

Not bad for a punk from the South Side.

~*~

Join the Gapers Block Book Club! Just sign up for the email list for news, announcements and more. We will be meeting to discuss Hairstyles of the Damned on Monday, April 11, at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. The meeting will begin at 7:30pm.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a real, live Chicago librarian. If you have topic ideas or questions you would like answered, send your suggestions to and it may be featured in a future column.

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