cover image Tender as Hellfire

Tender as Hellfire

Joe Meno / Author St. Martin's Press $22.95 (244p) ISBN 978-0-

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. (Mar.)