One is predisposed to like books from progressive publishing houses like Akashic and imprints like Punk Planet, but unfortunately not everything they turn out lives up to expectations. The new tricks from underdog novelist Joe Meno are respectably ambitious, but each limb he bravely crawls out onto seems to break. His latest work, The Boy Detective Fails, is essentially an updated adolescent mystery novel. The book begins as a sort of parody, using the tropes of that genre to surmise what might become of those lovable, ne’er-do-wrong protagonists (Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown) when faced with the complicated mysteries of the “real world.”
Of course, Meno’s intention is to illustrate that, like his protagonist Billy Argo the Boy Detective, we all struggle with the transition from childhood innocence to the bleak reality of adulthood. Unfortunately, Meno teeters and falls from the tightrope he walks between whimsical parody and serious existential speculation.
The thin veil he drapes over his postmodern plot and its caricatures ends up feeling like a too-sheer dress on an anorexic model: you can make out the ribcage. Too often, Meno makes decisions that favor function over form, and his characters end up pancake-thin because of it. Billy and his allies and foes never transcend their constructed cuteness — and their voices always sound uncannily like that of the narrator. For a novel that’s ostensibly about the shifting meaning of mystery in our lives, the author leaves little to the imagination. Perhaps admirably, the novel tries to be so many things (Pynchonian postmodernism, whimsical pastiche, super-realism, surrealism) that it ends up falling short of most of its aspirations.
The book also asks an awful lot of its readers (constructing a decoder ring to decrypt a hidden subplot!?), but fails to deliver on those investments. Meno has written a layered, ambitious work, and although certain narrative threads and some adventurous touches are promising, the book is ultimately a disappointment. Ben Kupstas