It's not easy being the Biebs. Or at least it's not in the eyes of switchblade-keen satirist Teddy Wayne.
His all parts enlightening, entertaining new novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine — in which a Justin Bieber-style star suffers under the weight of job demands — delves into the twisted world of celebrity culture with delicious, detailed insight. It's as if People magazine were written by Kurt Vonnegut, smart and fun and fanged.
It would have been easy to simply jab at pop effluvia, and Wayne, a recipient of the Whiting Writers' Award, certainly takes a few fish-barrel shots: The nation yearns for "the Jonny," a floppy hairdo; the singer is a sex symbol ("the Angel of Pop") although, at just 11 years old, he's yet to hit puberty and is woefully unsuccessful at launching himself into manhood. And Lord knows he's trying, and trying and trying.
But there are also great swaths of heart and pain and genuine compassion for the talented and the talentless in The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. We're all screwed up, on both sides of the stage. This kid, whom the world worships as having the ideal life, is miserable and lonely, often getting sleeping pills from his mother, a subtly icy stage monster he calls Jane.
Mom is a former grocery clerk, and she'll never go back there, even if it means pushing her son to extremes — like making him ride in a shoddy heart-shaped swing high above concert crowds because "fans are going to expect it now." He almost kills himself and those very fans one night, but Jane waves off his worries: "Even if it happens next time, you're protected by three levels of defense."
As he tries to navigate prepubescence and the paparazzi, slipping album sales and consumer backlash ("I can always tell when someone hates me right away. A lot of times it's easier to tell than when someone loves you"), his only friends (and even that's a stretch) are his bodyguard, his tutor and his zaftig housekeeper, about whom he sadly fantasizes. And yet, when they try to reach out, when anyone tries to shield him from hurt, Jane silences them fast enough.
So as Jonny — a supremely talented singer and dancer who idolizes Michael Jackson, without seeing the tragic pitfalls — plows ahead with a stateside tour culminating at a show in Madison Square Garden, he searches for any solid personal connection he can find. He's trying to find his absentee father. He bonds with his older, hipper opening act. He yearns to connect on a date set up for PR purposes.
And in one of the most heartbreaking scenes, desperate Jonny even tries to have a real moment onstage with a rabid, blubbering sycophant.
"At the end of the song I gave her a kiss on her cheek, and the tears dumped out faster and the crowd went wilder, and I covered the mike with my hand and whispered into her ear, 'I love you, do you love me?' and she nodded and wiped away her tears and one of the roadies gave her a bouquet and walked her backstage. And the messed-up part is, when I said it, I believed it, too, even if she was only OK-looking since you don't want to pick someone who makes the fat girls feel bad about themselves."
The cheapest joke in Wayne's book might be the protagonist's age: Eleven is an exaggerated number, unrealistic even for a sharp satire. Jonny thinks, speaks, acts much older. But the point is taken: To play this vicious fame game better than others, pop providers keep trying to find an edge, a difference, an "in." It's slimy, of course, and Jonny has a long road of therapy ahead. But hey, they wouldn't be selling if we weren't buying. And baby, baby, baby, we just can't get enough.
'The Love Song of Jonny Valentine'
By Teddy Wayne
Free Press. 285 pp. $25.