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TENDER AS HELLFIRE by Joe Meno

TENDER AS HELLFIRE

By Joe Meno

Pub Date: March 11th, 1999
ISBN: 0-312-20051-X
Publisher: St. Martin's

A rambling and oddly good-natured debut describing a childhood spent on the wrong side of the tracks. Any number of novels have been written about unhappy childhoods and bizarre families, but this one surpasses many—at least on the weirdo scale. Narrated by Dough Lunt, it’s a recollection of his first years in the aptly named western town of Tenderloin, where he and his brother Pill were moved when their mother’s boyfriend found work at the local meat-packing factory. The Lunt boys, having grown up in Duluth, are not quite prepared for life among the rednecks, and the trailer park where their mother deposits them doesn—t exactly introduce them to the cream of Tenderloin society. French, their mother’s pothead boyfriend, moves in with them, and soon he and Mrs. Lunt are hosting swingers” parties every Friday, while Dough and Pill find themselves in school with the kind of backwoods girls who can perform sex acts long before they know what menstruation is. Still fairly innocent at the age of 11, Dough is nevertheless well accustomed to the sight of grownups copulating on sofas and pulling knives on their girlfriends—and, eventually, he takes up religion in a half-hearted attempt to put order and a modicum of decency into his life. Meno arranges his tale episodically, concentrating on specific characters or incidents in each chapter (the tango dancer who moves into the trailer next door, or the birthday party spoiled by bickering relatives). Although extremely vivid, it suffers badly from this arrangement, which provides no central narrative to make its parts cohere. The final effect is somewhat pointless. Less than the sum of its parts, Meno’s story would have made a few good sketches. As a novel, though, it has the stilted, heavy feel of a wingless bird trying to fly.