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Tender as Hellfire: A Novel Hardcover – March 15, 1999

3.8 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A trailer park in the Plains town of Tenderloin is the setting of this crusty coming-of-age debut, which features some of the liveliest characters just this side of believable that one is apt to meet in a contemporary novel. The first-person narrator is a moral but susceptible 11-year-old called Dough, who lusts after his fifth-grade teacher and idolizes his trouble-making older brother, Pill-Bug. The boys, who are new to the town and shamed by the stigma of living in a trailer, were named by a father who wanted them to remain tough and who ended up dying while smuggling cigarettes along a Texas highway. Their mother and her new boyfriend, French, are low-life swingers, allowing the siblings to spend nights with Val, who entertains a slew of men but whom Dough worships as a virginal Madonna. Dough's own adoring friend is Lottie, a slightly deranged girl who offers Dough a gift of one of her taxidermist father's specimens; meanwhile, Pill-Bug earns a special affection from Lunna, a high school's floozy. Each character is vividly described (sometimes exhaustingly so) in one vignette or several, as are Chief, the Native American gas station owner who sells Dough cigarettes and tells a story of male initiation; Shilo, the fight-scarred dog with three legs and one eye; and El Rey del Perdito, the "King of the Tango," who dances all night to avoid mourning his dead wife. Often charming if sometimes overwritten, the novel is full of labyrinthine explanations and bizarre details delivered in poetic language. Meno's passionate new voice makes him a writer to watch.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Kirkus Reviews

A rambling and oddly good-natured debut describing a childhood spent on the wrong side of the tracks. Any number of novels have been written about unhappy childhoods and bizarre families, but this one surpasses manyat least on the weirdo scale. Narrated by Dough Lunt, its a recollection of his first years in the aptly named western town of Tenderloin, where he and his brother Pill were moved when their mothers boyfriend found work at the local meat-packing factory. The Lunt boys, having grown up in Duluth, are not quite prepared for life among the rednecks, and the trailer park where their mother deposits them doesnt exactly introduce them to the cream of Tenderloin society. French, their mothers pothead boyfriend, moves in with them, and soon he and Mrs. Lunt are hosting swingers parties every Friday, while Dough and Pill find themselves in school with the kind of backwoods girls who can perform sex acts long before they know what menstruation is. Still fairly innocent at the age of 11, Dough is nevertheless well accustomed to the sight of grownups copulating on sofas and pulling knives on their girlfriendsand, eventually, he takes up religion in a half-hearted attempt to put order and a modicum of decency into his life. Meno arranges his tale episodically, concentrating on specific characters or incidents in each chapter (the tango dancer who moves into the trailer next door, or the birthday party spoiled by bickering relatives). Although extremely vivid, it suffers badly from this arrangement, which provides no central narrative to make its parts cohere. The final effect is somewhat pointless. Less than the sum of its parts, Menos story would have made a few good sketches. As a novel, though, it has the stilted, heavy feel of a wingless bird trying to fly. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 1st edition (March 15, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 031220051X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312200510
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,318,553 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Tender as Hellfire is a colorful, imaginative, extremely humorous, yet ultimately truthful novel. The themes and motifs within are tight, the story given to us in entertaining instances that combine in the end as one whole picture of an alienated youth. Meno shows his talent for storytelling by simply casting his character into a chaotic environment and seeing how that charatcer will react. Simple as that. Within it is contained a complex story of a child trying to come to terms and cope with his father's downfall, so that he may escape a similar fate and rise above his 'cursed' surroundings.
It's a good read that moves well, entertains and will be remembered as a colorful piece of contemporary style. For how can one ever forget the Pigpen mascot scene? The King of the Tango? Chief? The fire motifs add a nice edge and hold it all together. The novel is by no means perfect; a formal review could name various flaws, but this book comes from a first time novelist who, with such voice, color, style and humor can only get better. If you like an easy read and cutting edge stuff, this is a great book to check out.
But a note to St. Marten's Press: fire your copyeditor. First time authors are already at a disadvantage, why make their situation harder by your incompetence in printing?
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By A Customer on August 12, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Joe Meno clearly has a lot of talent---far more than the proofreader who allowed the abundance of typos in the book to slide by---but the end result is rather disappointing. Not only is the main character's thought pattern and point of view often difficult to follow, but I never truly felt as though I got to know any of the characters. Although Meno has a real flair for detail in scenes where heavy action action is occurring, large chunks of the prose drift by like zombies, never making an impression or creating better understanding of the characters. The author makes the mistake of showing rather than telling far too often to give readers a chance to see things through the eyes of these underdeveloped characters. The result is a story that drives home only a feeling of confused hopelessness, rather than fulfillment.
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Format: Hardcover
Meno's book entices you with savory characters and gritty prose, but suffers badly from a recurring point of view problem. As you read, you have the sense that with the start of each chapter, the narrator forgets everything he's previously told his audience. The magical connection writers create with their reader is dangled in front of us in one chapter and then snatched away in the next by this out of touch narrator. A sharp editor's pen could have reduced the redundancy of overdone description, and helped this first time novelist move through a narrative that mattered to the reader. A collection of short stories may have been a wiser choice for St. Martin's.
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Format: Paperback
Joe Meno does it again. In this book he explore the lives of absolutely the most unintentional characters you will care so much about. Everybody in this book is described in a way that gives you a taste of another world that maybe not much people in literary circles know about. Without going into specifics about the story (because there are two summaries on the top of the reviews), the author takes you to a different set of lives that seem to make you want to care about these peoples lives and daily happenings. This (as most of Joe Meno's books) is not a fairy tale or a neat picture that will work out all in the end. Instead it lets you see inside the lives of these characters in a poetic and absolutely haunting sense that it will play on your mind for a while after reading this book. You want so badly for something to work out and lives to be uplifted, but that is not Joe Meno's craft. He gives you a series of feelings and leaves a chance for people to see the poetic structure and beauty in what at first seems like depressing circumstances and eccentricities. If you are tired of the usual read and want to take on something, just as the the books characters, from the other side of the tracks then give this book a shot. You just might love it like I did.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is about loneliness, and the ways we fight it. The stories savage all our comforting beliefs -- our parents can always protect us; the Midwest is peaceful; religion provides comfort -- and proves psychologist Sheldon Kopp's verdict: Childhood is a nightmare. Joe Meno writes with such power that you can't put this book down, no matter how much you wish you could.
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Format: Hardcover
From the moment I picked this book up I was immediately captured by its unbelieveably vivid and well-told story. And the characters are so compelling and imaginative that I know they will stay with me for a long time to come. This is one of those rare works of literature that once you start reading it, everything else takes a back seat. I highly, highly recommend it.
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Format: Hardcover
The author really paints a picture of Mid-Western life I have never seen before in fiction. It is a story of two brothers and how they might be cursed by the Devil because of their father's criminal life. The book is full of surreal twists and turns and kept me hooked the whole way.
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By A Customer on July 16, 2003
Format: Hardcover
--And that's exactly what I liked about it. Many readers, no doubt missed the themes of desperation and alienation that accompanied a boy's transition into adolescence. In a time where the answer to avoiding another Columbine is a cocktail of ritalin and anti-depressants, "Tender as Hellfire," displays the stark realities of poverty, where the liminal state from child to man becomes (quite literally) a trial by fire. Most striking of all, Meno is able to bring sympathy to his narrator's older brother, whose reaction to his socio-economic-imposed ostracism is pyromania. I call it a dangerous novel, because it dares to tell the story of American "trailer trash." Someone had to publish news of their existence; not pretty, but Meno certainly couldn't wait on Hollywood.
"Tender as Hellfire" is an easy read about complex characters, and Meno doesn't pull any punches. Leave your judgments at page one, or stick with PC Oprah books.
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