An old soul is the last thing you would expect to find inside Justin Bieber, an old entry on his website says. But all it takes is one listen to the 15-year-old soul-singing phenomenon to realize that he is light years ahead of his manufactured pop peers. Bieber, now 18 and as big a pop star as ever, is the model for the 11-year-old with an old soul in Teddy Waynes sad-funny, sometimes cutting new novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine.
Like the real phenom, Jonny became a tween idol at an absurdly early age: In two years, he has metamorphosed from an ordinary schoolboy into a global heartthrob. Hes almost as famous for his cutesy-pie hair as for his soulful voice, and he plays to arenas of screaming girls, one of whom he routinely invites onstage for a tearfully happy serenade.
As he did in his critically acclaimed debut novel, Kapitoil set in 1999 and told from the point of view of a young computer programmer from Qatar who gets a job on Wall Street Wayne seems intent on satirizing the absurdities of late-stage capitalism. In this case he sends up Americas obsession with celebrity and the insatiable, implacable fame machine that eats up artists and dreams, lacquers the talented and untalented alike with glitz, and spits out merchandise and publicity in a never-ending cycle of commodification.
Although Wayne is sometimes only shooting goldfish in a gilded bowl, he does manage to capture the mania of the media and besotted fans, the grinding weariness of a long tour and the cold-eyed strategizing of executives.
Jonny and his business-savvy mother, Jane, meet with two honchos from the record label, who give them a report titled Jonny Valentine 2.0 Brand-Extension Strategy and suggest setting him up on a date with a girl from their stable named Lisa Pinto, who could help him expand his reach in the Latino market. Jane is constantly nagging Jonny about his weight and trying to control what he eats the plan is to keep him slim and boyish as long as possible and exhorting him to work harder, never mind his exhaustion.
The top person is never simply the most talented, or the smartest, or the best-looking, she tells him. They sacrifice anything in their lives that might hold them back.
Wayne never lets the reader forget the huge pressures and responsibilities placed on Jonnys slender shoulders like all the jobs that would be lost if he were to give up show business and he makes us sympathize with Jonnys conflicting desires to please his mother and his business representatives, and his own longing for something resembling an ordinary life.
Jonny is a highly observant and thoughtful narrator, caught up in the swirl of big-time American success, but with growing intimations of its dark side. Wayne does not reduce him to a showbiz victim part of him wants the fame and acclaim as much as his mother but neither does he make him one of those pushy wunderkinds, willing to mortgage everything for another step up the ladder of fame.
Instead, Wayne depicts Jonny as a complicated, searching boy, by turns innocent and sophisticated beyond his years, eager to please and deeply resentful, devoted to his unusual talent and aware of both its rewards and its costs. This is what makes The Love Song more than a scabrous sendup of American celebrity culture; its also a poignant portrait of one young artists coming of age.