Teddy Wayne’s latest novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, is about 11-year-old tween pop star, Jonny Valentine, and the circus that is his life. In the book, Jonny relates a few months of his second tour, sparing us nothing—the media hoopla, his infinitely complicated relationship with is mother-manager, daily tour business, his search for his absent father, and his own budding adolescence.
In The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, Wayne examines the parasocial relationships, fame, love, schadenfreude, desire, performativity, persona, self-discovery, and, above all, the business of stardom in a novel that is smart, funny, and can make you downright heartsick in the best way.
Wayne’s novel is one of those rare books that manages to be intellectual and moving and simultaneously, no effort at all. The book sucks you in and carries you along. Engaging with the story is nothing like work—Wayne does all that for you. And while moving, while certainly invested in dissecting the cult of personality—the modern magical thinking around celebrity—Wayne doesn’t tell us what to think and he doesn’t tread into sap. He just lets Jonny go.
But none of that would work—in fact, the book could easily be unbearable—if we didn’t care about our narrator, Jonny (real name: Jonathan Valentino). Thankfully, Jonny is impossible to ignore—even at the tender age of 11, Jonny knows his craft, has fascinating and heartbreaking insights into the music business, and he is one of the most accurately-written children I’ve ever encountered. And Jonny is calculating by necessity—his brain is almost always thinking of the next move (how does this look for the media?, is this too much religion for my image? Etc), except for the couple of rare occasions when his fervent wishing for adventure, freedom, or love—you know, the fact that Jonathan is a child and not a robot—leads him to do stupid things. In Jonny, Wayne crafts a truly stunning and unique character who has problems, and is complex, and cannot be “fixed” merely by being cuddled and given soup, but does not implode, or collapse. Using references to grade school assignments and juvenile video games, Jonny simply soldiers on.
While Jonny/Jonathan is my favorite of Wayne’s creations, the book is absolutely stuffed with great characters. Everybody is flawed, complicated, and has complex or ambiguous motives. No one can be automatically or unconditionally trusted—least of all the people you most want to trust. Jane is Jonny’s mother/manager, and she is one of the most subtly, beautifully complicated characters I have ever read. And her relationship with Jonny is ineffable, odd, and about the most finely wrought, complex, inflected mother-son relationship I’ve ever seen.
The Love Song of Jonny Valentine is gorgeous, clever, idiosyncratic, opinionated, and yet reserved in, I suppose, judgment—Wayne preserves the ambiguity that I love so much—he never declares Truth for us. It’s a great book. Go read it.