Teddy Wayne starts off his winsome, hugely entertaining new novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, with an epigraph by Justin Bieber: I want my world to be fun. No parents, no rules, no nothing. Like, no one can stop me. No one can stop me.
The Canadian teen idol seemed to be living that rule-free life on his recent London tour:
Bieber was photographed walking around shirtless in London’s winter air, booed by his fans when he showed up two hours late to a concert, ejected from a nightclub because he had minors in his entourage, and prevented by his bodyguards from attacking the paparazzi.
The world at large generally snickered at these spoiled antics, but The Love Song of Jonny Valentine doesn’t.
Its eponymous 11-year-old pop crooner would never be late for a concert. Although, like Bieber, he was originally discovered on YouTube, his world is anything but no rules.
Instead, rules surround the beatific young Jonny, and he conscientiously accepts most of them on the say-so of his mother/manager, Jane; his vocal coach; and his bodyguard.
Jonny himself is a consummate professional: Usually I’m good about doing hard things now that will help me in the future. ... An extra hour of vocal practice targeting your weaknesses in the present means an extra thousand in sales a year from now. He’s sweet, accountable and well-managed; he’s the anti-Bieber.
Missing from the mix is his father, long gone from Jonny’s life and hardly missed by Jane.
Some people get good luck, and they get two good parents, she tells her little star. Some people have bad luck, and they don’t get any. And most people end up somewhere in the middle, and that’s what you got. Being 11, Jonny’s not so sure, and his furtive email exchanges with a man who may or may not be his father form one of the book’s most touching plot strands.
The main plot revolves around the fallout that ensues when the lead singer of a rock band called the Latchkeys (Jonny’s opening act, scorned by one character as the Urban Outfitters of bands) convinces the young singer to go out to a Memphis nightclub and try his first alcohol. It hits Jonny a lot harder than the sleeping pills he gets from his mother, and, of course, somebody films him acting drunk. Jonny has nothing but contempt for the paparazzi, but he agrees to some Bieber-esque damage control, doing a photo shoot at a children’s hospital. After all, his second album, Valentine Days, debuted at only No. 28 on Billboard, and his mother is worried about peaking market penetration.
Only critics care about versatility, wise-beyond-his-years Jonny observes. Fans want consistency. Fans of Wayne’s sharp debut novel, Kapitoil, which won the Whiting Award, will delight in his signature deadpan wit here (when Jonny notices that somebody has a pretty laugh, he makes a mental note to see if it can be sampled for a future song). There’s greater complexity and warmth in this new book, though. Wayne gets in well-aimed jabs at the big business of contemporary stadium rock, but at its heart The Love Song of Jonny Valentine is about a boy in a desperate hurry to grow up. We aren’t even vaguely tempted to snicker.