By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
The hook of Teddy Wayne's second novel "The Love Song of Johnny Valentine" is so simple and intriguing that the book has a feeling of inevitability about it, as if had Wayne not written it the universe would've simply tapped someone else: "What is it like to be Justin Bieber?"
The answer: a nightmare.
Wayne models Johnny Valentine after Bieber so closely that many of his biographical details mirror the Biebs exactly. Like Bieber, Johnny grew up with a single mother, was discovered via YouTube and is as famous for his haircut as his music. At one point, Johnny even mentions wanting to be a guest star on a popular crime show where he'll be shot and killed, just as Bieber was on CSI.
The most glaring differences between the two, from my perspective, are that there is no mention of Johnny having a swag coach, nor is there is an obvious Usher analog in Johnny's life -- grievous omissions that may have sunk a lesser novel.
We meet 11-year-old Johnny at the beginning of a long American tour in support of his commercially disappointing sophomore album that will culminate in a critical career-making-or-breaking show at Madison Square Garden on Valentine's Day. We quickly learn that Johnny's life is an isolated one, a closely mediated existence of restricted calories and zero friends where he is shuffled between live performances, media appearances and hotel rooms.
He lives in a Los Angeles mansion, but longs for the crummy St. Louis apartment from his childhood -- the only place that feels like home to him.
Johnny is obsessed with a video game whose chief attraction is that it allows you to explore the world unfettered, and he interprets most of his life through the filter of this virtual experience. At one point, Johnny observes, "It was like I was a derivative of other people, even in an emergency."
Clearly, this is a kid who doesn't feel in control.
One reason for that is his manager mother, whom Johnny addresses by her first name -- Jane, an insecure emotional wreck with a budding substance-abuse problem. Like an abusive spouse, she isolates Johnny from his friends and others who may disagree with her decisions.
While it's unclear if she's a competent manager or if Johnny merely believes she is, she's an awful mother, failing to establish appropriate parental boundaries, emotionally manipulating her son and knowingly putting him in danger because too much of her own self-worth is wrapped up in his career.
Like other novels narrated by a young protagonist, Johnny is precocious, fluent in industry speak such as "audience-loyalty retention strategy" and more likely to use a metaphor than your average 11-year-old. Otherwise, he's a recognizable boy under too much pressure and exposed to way too many adult experiences.
The novel's biggest success, in fact, is making you empathize and pity him, this rich, talented Bieber-esque tween idol. By the end, you're left with a plausible explanation for why so many child stars grow up to be deeply damaged human beings, and it's heartbreaking.
But, at the same time, "The Love Song of Johnny Valentine" is an engrossing, funny read. It feels like a more substantive, long-form version of "the glossies" Johnny and his mother are always leafing through.
In one chapter Johnny escapes from his hotel room to hang out with the cool indie rock band opening up for him on his tour, and it's as if you're getting to see what it would it be like if a young Justin Bieber partied with The Strokes. Turns out fun, but kind of sad, too.