I’ve been meaning to read The Boy Detective Fails for quite some time, ever since I read a review of it in some magazine at a dentist’s office. Such fare would not usually rank high in credibility, except that I was already familiar with Joe Meno for his debut novel, Hairstyles of the Damned. I think perhaps one of my fiance’s teachers knew the author, or something to that effect.
What’s important to know about The Boy Detective Fails, very much apart from its particulars, is that its heart is an existential question about the nature of death and of mystery as a constituent of Life-with-a-capital-L. As my brother noted, it’s a very sad book in a way that only an upper-middle-class white man from Chicago can write. It’s all about an existential angst derived from the evaporation of middle class a priori bliss: Things Fall Apart meets Stuff White People Like.
The devices of Boy Detective are a melange of Encyclopedia Brown and Stanley Spector (of Magnolia), sprinkled with bits of boy-detective archetypes like The Hardy Boys and allusions to literature or bygone pop culture too numerous to list. One gets the distinct impression, however, this the plot as it is amounts to mere minutiae, providing a shell of events, or a list of trivia and tropes with which to move some larger point along. In this respect, Joe Meno reminds me very much of Chuck Palahniuk’s work, wherein he takes generally damaged characters, places them with a context of specialized knowledge (e.g., pharmaceuticals and pre-fab houses in 1999’s Invisible Monsters), and proceeds to either make some larger philosophical point or else grind these characters and their philosophy into the ground.
I’m happy to report that The Boy Detective Fails isn’t nihilistic; it doesn’t simply degrade from tragedy to all-out catastrophe and then end with a comment about the shallowness of it all. No, it ends perhaps as well as you can expect it to: what Meno does is degrade the beginning of things.
Let me try to explain without divulging more than the jacket flap. Billy Argo is a famous boy detective who, along with his sister Caroline and fat friend Fenton, go about solving mysteries in a Scooby Doo-meets-Encyclopedia Brown kind of way, and everything is idyllic until the kids grow up, Billy goes off to college, and Caroline kills herself. It’s a classic end-of-innocence moment as childhood cedes very unhappily both to the rigors of adulthood and the realization that not all—very little, in fact—of life is idyllic. So Billy, clearly residing on some level of the autism continuum, disappears into a mental health facility for ten years and emerges as an emotionally stunted 30-year-old, determined to solve the mystery of his sister’s death.
As you might guess, there is in fact no physical mystery here—there is, actually, but it’s secondary (laughably so)—to the primary thread of the narrative, which is Billy’s growth/rehabilitation as an adult capable of interacting on a meaningful level with other people. I was tempted, as I was reading this, to label it as irreparably pessimistic in the Man-unto-himself mode of Mrs. Dalloway, but Meno cleverly pirouettes and allows some gleams of light through the seams of the velvet curtain at the end.
Meno’s cleverness as a writer is an unavoidable issue. As strange as it is to say, the plot particulars here are a red herring, and he uses them to his full advantage: encrypted messages use a decoder key found on the back flap. There are additional puzzles at the back of the book, as well as encoded messages by the page numbers, which must be deciphered using clues found in the foreword. Unfortunately, some of these clues are misspelled (the book could benefit from additional proofing, not just in these additional puzzles). But as I’ve mentioned, the “boy detective” angle is incidental to Meno’s point, which I think could have been just as aptly made using an unassuming character—you would be wise, I think, not to get too distracted in such things if you want to think about the book’s substance instead of its occidence.
It is a book, ultimately, about the mystery of death and the frailty of life—and our ability to derive joy or satisfaction from either. It is a book that will make you melancholy (or it should), and has a certain beauty that is inescapable. While occasionally distracting, Meno’s prose is both modern in substance and classical in elegance, and does well to unfold his story. The Boy Detective Fails is a solid book—a little sad, a little strange—that may leave you quizzical and out of sorts, but it is ultimately worth the read.