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By Teddy Wayne. Free Press, $25.
Baby, baby, baby, oh! Those who have recovered from Bieber fever may find themselves coming down with its close cousin, the Valentine virus, while reading Teddy Wayne’s latest novel. It’s a biting yet humane look at not just the tween pop industry (and the tweenypoppers who inhabit it), but a sympathetic inner landscape of a child made a commodity too soon.
Eleven-year-old bubblegum heartthrob Jonny Valentine is hitting his sophomore slump: Arenas aren’t as full as they used to be, he’s got a visible roll of chub and his first pube just won’t arrive. Jonny’s support staff—his controlling mother, plus his bodyguard, voice coach and tutor—all take their piece of the boy with the signature coiffure, but at the end of the day our kid is all alone. Neither the existentially educational video game with which Jonny is obsessed nor the sleeping pills stolen from his mother’s purse can make him forget about his long-absent father. And he may never be as big as Tyler Beats—so maybe he should just hang it all up, go to school and settle in to the normalcy that’s been just out of reach.
Wayne, a “Shouts & Murmurs” contributor and author of the satirical Kapitoil, understands something about nailing his targets. Here, he skips into the persona of his narrator with gusto, giving the reader faux candid photo ops and battles with potential pervs from the front lines. But beyond Jonny’s recitations of rules about pop hooks and image control, Wayne remembers the uncertain adolescent curious about friendship and love, as well as the sex and drugs that are already accessible to him. With both wizened sass and juvenile fragility, Jonny proves that things get sticky even in the land of bubblegum.