Dusting Off: “Demons in the Spring” by Joe Meno

Demons in the Spring
by Joe Meno
Akashic Books; 272 p.

Posted by Tobias Carroll

Joe Meno’s coming-of-age/coming-to-punk-rock novel Hairstyles of the Damned met the world in 2004. With a collection of resonant themes and defiant first-person narration — not to mention Meno’s outspoken sentiment in favor of independent publishing — it found an unlikely audience in a cross-section of punk rockers, independent media advocates, and literary aficionados. Of Meno’s four novels, though, Hairstyles is in some ways atypical: his earlier How the Hula Girl Sings and Tender As Hellfire (revised for its 2007 reissue on Akashic) were laced with noir tropes and occasionally beatific moments of surrealism. That trajectory was even more manifest in 2006’s The Boy Detective Fails, which impressively sustains a tone somewhere between postmodern pulp and wrenching emotional examination throughout.

Demons in the Spring, Meno’s second collection of shorter work, delves into both the realistic and the surreal, accompanied by illustrations from the likes of Charles Burns, Archer Prewitt, and Paul Hornschemeier. “The Sound before the End of the World,” with a KISS Army-obsessed policeman protagonist named Ron, seems to be an offbeat period piece right up until a black hole shows up in its small-town setting. While some of Meno’s more surreal elements have a dreamlike component (as in “Miniature Elephants Are Popular”), the black hole’s mirroring of Ron’s personal life feels more metaphoric than necessary.

Whether surreal or not, there’s an outstretched intimacy to the best of these stories, an emotional rawness expanded by Meno’s rational, yearning prose. The non-romance sketched out in “An Apple Could Make You Laugh” (perfectly illustrated by Geoff McFetridge) evokes the minute details of a pair of lives despite its narrow construction. And “The Unabomber and My Brother” begins with a seemingly arbitrary narrative device that ultimately reveals a haunting sense of betrayal and a tragic, violent subtext.

As the collection enters its last third, that intimacy takes center stage. “I Want the Quiet Moments of a Party Girl” is the most traditional, most ostensibly realistic, of all of the stories here. Meno charts the pregnancy of a young Chicago couple amidst a post-art school, underground culture. He elegantly describes their world, and the end result feels achingly familiar. The couple at its heart is balanced by the one at the heart of “Airports of Light,” the collection’s penultimate story. As surreal as “Moments” is realistic, its frenzied dream logic is nearly as affecting. And for all that Meno creates memorable characters, it may be that his true strength is in documenting their interactions, in sketching out the bonds — extant or broken, familial or emotional — that unite disparate lives.

[This review originally appeared at Lit Mob.]