IN THE ROOMS of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” In the stadiums of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, tween girls scream “Jonny, Jonny” for the eleven-year-old pop angel who narrates Teddy Wayne’s second novel. Though adored by millions, the Bieber-esque Jonny, like Prufrock, seeks more intimate relations. In search of such connection, during the multi-city tour from Los Angeles to New York City around which the book is structured, Jonny will maneuver to evade his micro-managing mother’s control; learn about sex through overheard conversations and a spied-upon assignation; and engage in a furtive email correspondence with a man who could be either his father or a sexual predator, or possibly both. The novel thus has a double plot: Jonny’s quest for sexual initiation and his search for paternal guidance, with the latter being a possible key to the former.
Jonny’s journey into the spotlight began when a school music teacher recognized his vocal gift; subsequently his mother put him out busking in their native St. Louis. A video of Johnny performing went viral on YouTube, and soon the child’s bubble-gum image was being constructed by a recording label and exploited by teen media. Even Jonny himself sees how this insipid public identity has been shaped; to emphasize the novel’s satire of star-making, Wayne depicts Jonny reading the documents that sustain his celebrity: press releases, fawning blogs, newspaper reviews, a magazine article by one “Andy Tweedy” (an authorial anagram).
The novel offers parallels to Huck Finn, and an allusion to Stephen Dedalus — both characters searching, like Johnny, for a father figure. Jonny studies escaped slave narratives and has a Jim-like bodyguard in the kindly Walter, who is separated from his own family. He also finds a Bloom-like mentor in Zack, leader of the Latchkeys, Jonny’s opening act. While the novel vouches for the power of Jonny’s singing voice, these literary echoes call attention — by obvious contrast with Twain and Joyce — to the fact that Jonny’s narrative voice is that of a child whose constant frame of reference is a video game he plays compulsively — when he’s not trying to coax semen out of his pre-adolescent erections. Wayne contrasts Jonny’s immature emotional life, and his strings of compound sentences, which often begin with a solecism such as “Me and Walter,” with the young star’s savvy about the music industry; Jonny knows about sound checks, throat gargles, green rooms, product placement, and marketing tie-ins. In one illustration of his insider perspective, Jonny meditates on modifying his demographic, following a staged and much-photographed date with a slightly older actress:
The Lisa Pinto exposure made sense from a packaging-strategy perspective, since even if it was driving off some of the fat girls, it would bring in more of the pretty girls, and if they liked me then the fat girls would like me more to try to be like the pretty girls, plus the pretty girls would bring their boyfriends to my concerts, which effectively doubled gate receipts and they also had to buy them crap merch to make them happy, but the fat girls didn’t have boyfriends. They had to buy the crap merch for themselves to feel happier.
Jonny often seems worldly beyond his years, as if Wayne were attempting to escape the constraints of his chosen narrator’s consciousness. One of the novel’s epigraphs is from a song by the Clash: “Complete control, even over this song.” Wayne has his double-quest plot — Jonny’s search for a sexual partner and for a father — and its carefully parceled-out revelations under control, but Jonny’s narrative voice breaks like an adolescent boy’s.
Although Jonny Valentine is set in the precise present — the tour’s final, crucial Madison Square Garden concert takes place on Valentine’s Day 2013 — the book’s limitations suggest that Wayne’s second novel to be published may have the first one he wrote. Kapitoil, released in 2010, is also narrated by a naïf inside an exploitive industry, but the debut is more sophisticated than its follow-up. In Kapitoil, a twenty-something computer whiz leaves Qatar to work at a New York City equity firm, invents a program that produces high profits, and fends off an attempt by the firm’s founder to steal his program. Wayne plays Kiram Issar’s techno-formal diction and awkward syntax for easy laughs, but his protagonist’s passions are adult, and his insider information is more substantial and compelling to readers than Jonny’s knowledge of the music industry. In the narrative of Jonny Valentine, Wayne resembles a tour guide fearful of losing his charges. He spends a great deal of time getting Jonny in and out of cars, in and out of hotels, in and out of stadiums. Readers learn over and over what Jonny wears and what he eats. Each event is followed by an explanation of why it occurred and what it means. And as Jonny’s tour wends its way across the country, scenes become predictable. By the end of the trip, Jonny is exhausted; the reader, too, is likely to be weary of his story, even the paternal search, which increasingly seems delayed by the author, rather than by Johnny’s circumstances.
Perhaps it’s not that Johnny Valentine is a first novel, but rather that Wayne recognized how a plot convention — the innocent youth struggling for authenticity against big business — worked in Kapitoil, and decided not to alter a formula that got him a Whiting Award. In Jonny Valentine, though, the convention is dumbed down: the naïf now a child, international finance now pop music. Although Jonny’s mother falls short as a parent, she’s a clever manager, and recognizes that Team Jonny may have to modify its brand to reach an older and more discerning audience. However, neither she nor Jonny wants him to be like the Latchkeys, Harvard graduates who create smart indie rock and therefore do not stay in the best hotels or make millions (though Jonny notes that they do get to make out with groupies in bars). A Harvard graduate who sometimes writes magazine humor, Wayne seems unsure whether he wants to be a pop entertainer or a serious novelist. Another Harvard graduate also wrote a novel about a child immersed in American popular culture: William Gaddis and JR, which won the National Book Award in 1976. The scope and sprawl of JR seem antithetical to the control that Wayne prizes, but Gaddis uses his young protagonist to create a wide, deep, satiric world that is resonant and real. Wayne might consider adopting Gaddis as a father figure.