With THE LOVE SONG OF JONNY VALENTINE, Teddy Wayne has accomplished two impressive feats. He has created an alternate universe of top 40 pop whose stars, songs and trends feel instantly familiar without being derivative, and he has written a novel for adults but narrated by the consistent and heartbreaking voice of an 11-year-old pop star. Few novels with child narrators can truly appeal to adults in a complex way. Flannery O’Connor’s THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY and, of course, Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD are obvious exceptions, and we can add this novel to the list.
Jonny Valentine, a St. Louis native turned LA-based teen phenomenon, guides the reader through his tour as he secretly searches for his estranged father. His sales are lagging behind his first record’s and those of his rival, Tyler Beats, and the label is putting pressure on him and his mother/manager, Jane. He meets with publicists, voice coaches, tutors, dance coaches, teen starlets, and the media. Throughout all of this, he is struggling with isolation, the undue pressure of a massive career, hormones and simply growing up. The mistakes most of us make in private, Jonny is forced to make publicly.
"With THE LOVE SONG OF JONNY VALENTINE, Teddy Wayne has accomplished two impressive feats. He has created an alternate universe of top 40 pop whose stars, songs and trends feel instantly familiar without being derivative, and he has written a novel for adults but narrated by the consistent and heartbreaking voice of an 11-year-old pop star."
While the novel makes a sharp criticism of American obsessions with fame, weight, appearance, trends and celebrity, the characters are never sacrificed at the altar of mockery. Jonny, Jane and the cast surrounding them are authentic, real people. Though their world may be ridiculed, we see that these are real people with real, often conflicting concerns.
Jane in particular becomes one of the book’s most interesting characters as Wayne resists the urge to reduce her to a stereotypical stage mother. She is in turns loving and cruel, arrogant and insecure, broken and brave. The novel shows that she genuinely loves her son, but she is much better at managing his career than his life.
The “star making machinery behind the popular song” --- to borrow a phrase from Joni Mitchell --- is rightly skewered. The calculated division of labor creating a pop star are given ample time. Furthermore, the cynical business of creating a press celebrity is presented. There is essentially no concern for art or even music beyond its potential demographic appeal. There is even a frank discussion between Jane and a representative from the label of when it is too soon to begin sexualizing Jonny’s image that leads to a for-the-press relationship with a teen starlet. Eleven-year-old Jonny’s weight is a constant source of concern for Jane and, therefore, himself. Knowing what adults willingly put themselves through is strange in its own right, but seeing adults put a child through it is especially disturbing. Jonny’s admiration for Michael Jackson --- the novel’s only real pop star reference --- highlights the dangers of Jonny’s potential future.
What impresses me most is the consistency of Jonny’s voice. Creating an 11-year-old deeply embedded into the world of adults is a tricky endeavor. This is still a child who is figuring out the world around him. That world is devoid of other children and instead populated with marketing strategists and record execs. Thus, Jonny’s language is steeped in marketing jargon and the expressions of his favorite video game, the fictional The Secret Land of Zenon. These worlds --- pop music and Zenon --- are all he knows, and he spends the novel coming to grips with the world around him and the terminology they have given him.
I won’t spoil it here, but the novel really sticks the landing with the end. Even though it is the only logical, rational way for the book to conclude, it is still surprising, touching and sad. THE LOVE SONG OF JONNY VALENTINE will stick in your memory much longer than the latest disposable pop hit.
Reviewed by Josh Mallory on February 8, 2013
The Love Song of Jonny Valentine