The novel The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, which is out today, is narrated by the 11-year-old pop star known for such bubblegum hits as "Guys vs. Girls" and "U R Kewt." The novel tracks Jonny, who speaks and thinks in a mash-up of tween grammar and music-industry lingo, on his "Valentine Days" tour across America. As he chafes under the control of his manager-mother, Jane, he attempts to reconnect clandestinely over the Internet with someone claiming to be his long-lost father. (In a review last week in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani had nice things to say about it.)
In this scene, Jonny has escaped his Memphis hotel room at night to hang out at his nightclub with his opening band, the Latchkeys—twenty-something indie rockers testing the major-label waters—and their charismatic front man, Zack. Along with them are four of the Latchkeys' female fans.
We were in a roped-off section that had a bouncer guarding it, with thirty or forty people in our area and a lot more in the rest of the room, either talking or dancing to the DJ, who was playing some bad hip-hop song, I forget the rapper's name, but it was one of those where the guy tries to sing and he doesn't have the range. I want to be like, Stay in your element. You don't see me trying to rap. I've tried it on my own, and I know it's out of my talent reach.
Irena brought us to a free area with two couches and two chairs around a chipped and beat-up coffee table. It was sort of like what they had in the hotel room, only we were paying to be here and have other people around us that we weren't talking to. Zack grabbed one of the chairs and I sat on a couch right near him. Irena took everyone's order, which was still whiskey or beer, and when she got to me, she looked at Zack to see what she should do. "Jonny, what soda do you like?" he asked.
"Ginger ale," I told him. All soda is crap for the vocal cords, but ginger ale has a little less sugar and doesn't cause as much mucus production. I couldn't ask for diet in front of everyone, though.
"Ginger ale on the rocks," Zack ordered, which is what I was going to say from now on. He whispered something else to Irena before she went off. When she came back with our drinks and was handing out the last one to Zack, the DJ kicked into the Latchkeys song "Frog-Legs Franny." I caught Irena smiling at Zack, and I figured he'd requested it, to impress the girls, but they were already impressed, so maybe he just wanted it anyway. "Well, that's embarrassing," Zack said after Irena left. By now a bunch of people in our section were looking over at us, mostly at me and Zack.
The Latchkeys talked about books and movies and musicians I hadn't heard of. They all had opinions on everything and used words like aesthetic and ideology and polemic. Maybe I knew more about slave autobiographies than them, but that was it. I thought about asking if they'd read The Confessions of Nat Turner, which was the best one I'd read so far, because it was short but also it has the most action and Nat Turner kills a bunch of white people just with a small sword, like he's in Zenon, except he says he wants to slay his enemies with their own weapons, which in Zenon would mean stealing someone's weapon and using it against them, and I don't think the game actually lets you do that since you can't inspect an enemy's inventory until he's dead. They wouldn't know about Zenon, though, so I stayed quiet. The girls didn't say as much except for Vanessa, who used those kinds of words and argued with them all, especially Zack. Making smart music got you smart groupies who understood what you were doing with your sound, even if it meant a smaller overall base. I had fans who'd never even heard of MJ.
They were discussing the one movie I had seen, Back to the Future, and Zack was like, "It represents not merely a nostalgic desire to regress to the safety of adolescence, but to the conservative fifties, the notion that we only have to roll back the biological and temporal clocks and we'll be happier. It's a total by‑product of the anxieties of the cold war . . ."
The song that was playing switched into something familiar, and after a few bars I picked up that it was "Summa Fling," but a remixed club version I'd never heard before. It sounded decent, but it cut down my lyrics to the words "Summa fling, two-month thing, I wanna sing to my summa fling," and overlaid a lot of other beats not in the original song. My producer for that album, Charles, had the philosophy that the music had to hook the listener but the vocals were what kept them there, and when you had someone with my vocal strength, you didn't mess around with overproduced songs. We probably got a good royalty rate for the sampling. Jane watches that stuff like a hawk.
"This one of yours?" Zack asked me, and he gave me a little wink no one else could see so I knew he'd requested it from Irena. I said it was, and he said it was cool and told the other Latchkeys they should do their own remix about briefly dating the valedictorian of summer school called "Summa Cum Laude Fling," and took Vanessa's hand and danced with her. A ton of people in the crowd were dancing, too, and even if it was only like a quarter of my original, it somehow felt cooler to watch people here dancing to it while I drank ginger ale than it did when they danced at my concerts. Part of it was because the crowd was older and where we were, but the biggest reason was that Zack had requested the song, which meant he knew about the club remix already, and he was dancing to it.
The one thing I didn't like about the remix was the original has a long fadeout, where I'm singing the chorus over and over for about thirty seconds, and what I like about fadeouts is how, after the song is over, it feels like it's still playing somewhere, only you can't hear it. It's a nice idea, that just because you're not listening to a song in front of you doesn't mean it doesn't exist somewhere else. It works even better for "Summa Fling," since it's like, Even this two-month relationship is going on in some way, that's why I'm singing about it forever. The remix had a hard stop. You know a song is over then.
They ordered a second round of drinks from a new waitress, and Zack asked for a double rye. When it came, he said, "Jonny, let me get some of your ginger ale?" I handed it to him, and he brought it down below the coffee table with his rye and poured half his drink into mine. He passed it back to me without looking.
The drink smelled mostly like ginger ale, but also like Jane's breath when she drank. I took a sip. It was sweet, but it stung my tongue like an arrow piercing your armor in Zenon and slid down my throat like a mage's fireball that caused some damage. But it got easier with each sip, until when I was halfway through Zack reached for my glass again and dumped in the rest of his drink. The fireball fell inside my stomach, but it was a relaxing fireball, and it spread out like a smoke cloak in Zenon for hiding yourself, and then it was like the damage was healing. What doesn't kill me only makes me stronger. Now I got why Jane does this. You don't worry about anything anymore. I could say something dumb that everyone knew about Back to the Future and not care how the Latchkeys reacted, like that I thought the coolest part was how different everyone's lives became in the future after one little thing changed in the past.
By the time I was almost done with my drink, Vanessa was sitting on Zack's lap on his chair and making out with him like in a music video. My vision was getting blurry, and I didn't have the energy to keep it straight, so I only saw their outline, and then I had this picture in my head of Zack sitting in an armchair like the one he was in, but it was in a home, in a real living room, and there was a fireplace behind him and he was reading the newspaper, and I went up to him as he patted his lap and I crawled onto it and sat there while he read the paper.
And the weirdest part was, I was getting hard. Probably it was because my eyes were sort of on Vanessa's legs where her skirt was riding up on her thighs and I could almost see her underwear, so I focused my eyes on her there and got harder and shut my eyes totally and put my drink on the table and thought about what Vanessa looked like naked and humping her.
Next thing I knew, someone was shaking me awake. It was Vanessa. "Wake up, sleepy boy," she said, almost like Jane singing, "Go to sleepy, little baby."
I don't know how long I was out for, but it was way worse than waking up early from zolpidem. The Latchkeys and the girls were all getting their stuff together and leaving. The nightclub was still pretty packed, though not as much as before. I swung my feet onto the ground and wobbled back to a sitting position on the couch before Vanessa broke my fall backward with her arms. "Easy there, fella," she said. "Zack, help?"
Zack bent down right in front of me. His eyebrows looked concerned. A long lock of his hair touched my forehead. "You okay, little man?"
I made sure I wasn't going to fall again before I stood up. "I'm solid."
Zack gave me a fake punch on my cheek, lightly touching it with his knuckles, and said, "Cool. Walk out with me." He put his jacket and hat on me and his hand on my back again, but this time I think it was to make sure I didn't collapse or depart the realm.
We left through the secret passage from before and there was a long line for cabs, but Irena let us cut in front and told us to come back anytime. I went with Zack and Vanessa again. The cab ride seemed longer than the way there, since we were quieter and time always goes slower after you've left something than before you've arrived. Zack sat in the middle, and after a few minutes Vanessa leaned on his shoulder and fell asleep, and I got tired, too, and my head found its way onto his other shoulder, but I wasn't falling asleep and I didn't really want to be asleep, I just wanted to stay like that forever, smelling the cigarettes in his jacket I was wearing and his cologne me and him were both wearing and resting on his shoulder as we drove silently in the dark of a strange city.
We arrived at the hotel after the two other cabs. Zack and Vanessa took me up to my floor in the elevator. I was hoping we'd pretend to sneak around again, but I think they were too tired. They escorted me inside my room and took Zack's jacket and hat off me. "Change into pajamas," Zack said. "You don't want your mom asking why you're still in your clothes."
While I changed in the bathroom, I was hoping Zack and Vanessa would say they were so tired, could they just crash on my couch? And I'd be like, "Yeah, I don't really like my bed and I kind of want to sleep on the couch, too," so I'd go on one of the couches and they'd take the other two, and we'd have a sleepover like I used to have with Michael and maybe even make a cushion fort. I changed my clothes super-fast so I could tell them they could crash there if they wanted, in case they were afraid to ask.
But when I came out, they weren't in the living room. "Zack?" I called.
They weren't in the bedroom, either. I guess they wanted a real bed. I got under the covers. It had that feeling of being too big, like it was an ocean and I was a stone someone skipped in it, where you watch it carefully at first to count how many times it skips, and then it sinks, and you pick up the next stone and forget about the last one.
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Teddy Wayne is the author of the novels The Love Song of Jonny Valentine and Kapitoil, for which he won a 2011 Whiting Writers' Award. On Twitter, follow either him or Jonny Valentine.