Review: The Boy Detective Fails
Title: The Boy Detective Fails
Author: Joe Meno
Length: 325 pages (appx.)
Publisher: Punk Planet Books
I don't know anything about Joe Meno. He's written some other books that seem to have gotten good reviews, but I've never read them. He teaches creative writing at a college I didn't attend. If somebody hadn't recommended The Boy Detective Fails, I probably never would have even known it existed.
I'll tell you right now that I owe an awful lot to the person who did recommend it, because it's the best book written by a living author that I've read in some time.
It isn't perfect, but I almost hesitate to draw attention to its faults on the grounds that 1) they are minor and 2) negative aspects seem to get more attention in a review than positive ones, and they seem to be what readers remember most. So let me just promise you, here and now, that there is nothing this book does that hindered my enjoyment of reading it. There are things I would change, and there are places I feel Meno went slightly wrong, but these issues are small, almost entirely weightless. The Boy Detective Fails has so much going for it that it continuously excuses itself from any faults we may discover along the way.
The story centers around Billy Argo, the titular boy detective, who, once upon a time, solved mysteries (and crimes) with his younger sister Caroline and neighbor Fenton. He is from the same line of childhood sleuths as Encyclopedia Brown and The Hardy Boys (and, a bit more closely, Rusty Venture)...he's a character plucked from a young reader's adventure series that never actually existed, and, when we check in on him in The Boy Detective Fails, we find his glory days well behind him.
The three crime-solvers have each found it difficult to cope with an expiring childhood; Caroline has taken her own life, Billy has spent ten years in a mental institution, and Fenton's B-list celebrity hood has run out and left him depressed, obese and bed-ridden. And yet--and yet--Meno captures this complete absence of hope in a way that's endearing...honest, but not offensive. Tender...not shocking. Meno may have thrust his characters into these bleak situations, but he cares enough about them to treat them with dignity while they're there.
The novel follows Billy as he attempts to adjust to a normal adult life. He keeps finding himself compelled to solve mysteries (and throughout the course of the book he does solve several) but his first instinct is always to fight the tendency. He's seen what success has done to his sister, to his best friend, and to himself. He desires nothing more than to disappear. To go to work, be ignored, go home, and go to sleep. He wants to fade, quietly, into nothing.
Of course, this cannot happen...not while Billy is living in the same facility as several of his ex-enemies (such as Professor Josef Von Golum, who keeps trying to murder Billy in such obviously self-defeating ways, or the mute Mr. Pluto who has a severely exploitable henchman complex). He is constantly haunted by the shadows of the life he was living when he was ten years old, and he happens to meet up with another young, adventurous pair: Effie and Gus Mumford. The two children reawaken feelings in Billy that he's been trying to kill with prescription drugs and ignorance...he sees in them the potential to begin again. Maybe not the promise of rebirth...but at least the suggestion.
The novel is, thoroughly, heartbreaking. It's painfully hilarious journey through shattered dreams and lost promises. It's an unblinking exploration of a man doomed always to live in the shadow of his own childhood. And, most importantly, it's an assurance that it's never too late to find yourself.
Meno's characters are beautiful in their failures. You'll read about them with the same sad-eyed fascination you had the first time you saw The Royal Tenenbaums, or read Salinger's Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. You'll spend pages at a time biting your own lip in anticipation of Billy's first kiss, at age thirty, with a woman at least as universally unprepared as he is. Billy rebuilds his life one fragment at a time, and Meno lets you fall in love with him. It would have been very easy to keep this exceptional character at a distance, always underlining the reasons he could not have existed in our world, but he doesn't succumb to the easy temptation of cynicism. He gives Billy a life. He destroys it. And then he lends Billy a hand in putting it all back together again.
As I said, it's not a perfect novel, but it's pretty darn close. Sometimes Meno falls into the trap of writing in the style of children's detective fiction, during which times he allows himself some easy jokes at the expense of the genre rather than at the expense of his own characters or situations. It's distracting, when it happens, and it pulls you out of the reality he's been so good at building, but it's rare...and that's what makes it so frustrating: it doesn't need to be there at all. A few trimmed flat jokes here and there and the novel would be that much more powerful for the cull.
There are also a few distressing errors in spelling and mechanics, which I imagine is just the reality of working with a small publisher. I don't hold Meno responsible for these...I'm sure he was working with an editor, and that's really where they should have been caught. But...well...there's always the chance he'll get to correct them for the second edition.
It's a great book. A truly, sincerely great book. My personal favorite sequence happens to attend Gus Mumford, the silent bully, who experiences a wide array of confusing emotions when he finds himself attracted to a terminally-ill fellow student. Gus's heartache is real. As is his complete misunderstanding of the feelings he is experiencing. In fact, Gus's story is probably the closest parallel Billy has in the book, and Meno uses the character to great effect in reflecting back to the reader an alternate history for Billy himself.
I can't recommend The Boy Detective Fails enough. There is no aspect of the book that I can't throw my endorsement behind. It's lovely, it's innocent, it's heart-breaking and it's funny. It's exactly the sort of novel we should be getting at this point in American culture. It's a novel by an author who is effectively (and importantly) in touch with the conflicting desires of our time: the desire to be great, and the desire to tear down all that which is great.