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Tender as Hellfire

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Paperback reissue of indie sensation Joe Meno's debut novel.

Dough and Pill are brothers bound by more than blood. The anguish of their past, the terror of their present, and the uncertainty of their future all underscore the only truth that is within their grasp: each other. For beneath the cruel surface of their trailer park community lies a menagerie of odd characters, each one strange yet somehow beautiful, including Val, the blowsy bottle-blonde who shows surprising maternal instincts when the boys need it most, and El Rey del Perdito, the “Undisputed King of the Tango,” a widower who dances nightly, imagining his wife in his arms, as Dough peers through the window contemplating a love that seems not to die. Surrounded by the strange and displaced, Dough and Pill must navigate through a world of constant pain and confusion. Finding beauty in unexpected places and maintaining reverence for hard-won scars, these two brothers learn, finally, that even broken things can be perfect.

220 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1999

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About the author

Joe Meno

53 books456 followers
Joe Meno is a fiction writer and playwright who lives in Chicago. A winner of the Nelson Algren Literary Award, the Great Lakes Book Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Society of Midland Author's Fiction Prize, and a finalist for the Story Prize, he is the author of seven novels and two short story collections. He is also the editor of Chicago Noir: The Classics. A long-time contributor to the seminal culture magazine, Punk Planet, his other non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times and Chicago magazine. He is a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago.

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5 stars
163 (24%)
4 stars
256 (38%)
3 stars
196 (29%)
2 stars
45 (6%)
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8 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 62 reviews
Profile Image for Oriana.
Author 2 books3,261 followers
September 7, 2013
What an astonishingly beautiful, awful, brutal, stunning book.

Who are the players? Well, there's eleven-year-old Dough and his thirteen-year-old pyro brother Pill-Bug. (Their dad, who's dead, was familiar with Johnny Cash's "Boy Named Sue" theory.) They live in a trailer park with their mom and her new boyfriend and a three-legged, one-eyed pitbull they rescued from a dog-fight. The boys are furious white-trash fuckups—but the book is all told by Dough, who is devastated and miserable by his own powerless rage.

What's the plot? Well, it proceeds episodically, with tales of simple things like buying cigarettes and failing tests at school, to much more harrowing sections about rape and child abuse and an alcoholic deputy and a terrifying taxidermist, plus there's a haunted barn and Dough's recurring waking dreams about the Devil and his dark semi-obsession with his own doom.

What's the overall effect? It is so intense.

This was Meno's first book, apparently, written when he was in his early twenties. It's unbelievable that Hairstyles of the Damned, which is much more simple, less ambitious and less accomplished, is the one that made him famous. And it's even more unbelievable that this harrowing, heartbreaking, furious thing came from the same person who is now writing twee sweet hipster fables like Boy Detective and Demons in the Spring.

I guess he had to exorcise his demons here to get to the precious manic-pixie bicycle girl in Office Girl? Because this book is red-hot with fucking demons, and I don't think I'm going to sleep very well tonight.
Profile Image for Brandon Will.
296 reviews29 followers
February 21, 2009
Meno's descriptions are amazing; this book is full of many scenes you will fully live, see, smell, and feel.

Here's a story of a few broken yet still beautiful souls, told through the eyes of an eleven-year-old, who is opening up to life without much to go on from his dismal surroundings.

He fears the future and the past catching up with him--in the form of the devil, who he is sure took his father from him.

He finds beauty in a lame one-eyed, three-legged mutt left for dead, glass eyes, and some of the struggling people around him.
Profile Image for Marty.
25 reviews
December 4, 2007
I wrote a blurb for this for my job interview, but I don't remember it offhand. The book is about two brothers with damnation in their destiny. Pill and Dough, named thusly by their father in a "Boy Named Sue,"-way to toughen them up, live in Tenderloin. It's a trailer park. The book details (and details) their loss of innocence through fire, sex, abuse, dogfights, robbery, and much more. The devil is chasing these boys who carry the burden of their long gone father around wherever they go. It's Joe Meno's first novel, and it comes off that way. He tries very hard to convince us that he is a novelist and does deserve to be published by using too many metaphors, reaching for poetic similies way too often and burdening us with wordiness. If you find the first release, don't read it. He recently went over it again and relieved the book of some wordy strain in the new paperback. UPDATE: I see some people compare him to Salinger, and I would not. I was bored by nine stories, but Joe Meno has not created a character as richly covered in permenant zeitgeist as Holden Caufield is. I never like calling anyone, the new anything, but I probably have sometime or another. If Meno will be there someday, it's not now.
Profile Image for Kate.
349 reviews83 followers
June 10, 2009
Joe Meno is an amazing author. You can tell a lot about how good an author is by reading his or her first book and Tender As Hellfire has all the elements of a well written story that will keep you intrigued from start to finish.

Dough is the narrator. You see the events unfold through his eyes and the quirky way he has of describing things is really great, so great in fact, that you feel as if you're right there beside him experiencing the same stuff.

I also liked Pill, Dough's brother. You can tell that the two of them really care for each other in the way that they look out for one another, especially when the shit starts to hit the fan.

Lottie is Dough's friend and they have a lot more in common than either one would like to admit and even though Dough is glad when she gets out of her father's house, he also misses her and wishes he could be with her where ever she is.

All in all, I throughly enjoyed this book and I can't wait to read more from Joe Meno.
Profile Image for Antonio.
2 reviews1 follower
April 19, 2011
This was an interesting look into a particular part of adolescence. An idea of the main protagonists' fate is determined before the first page comes to an end. And it is not a happy one. But still the book details a time in life (youth) where so many things seem certain, but there is still so much mystery. We are sure of who we think we are, yet, many things are strange and scary & that belief is often shaken & unstable. Leading to worry.

I enjoyed the excitement that existed in Dough & Pills' life. I also very much enjoyed remembering what that time in life was like. Although I wasn't raised in a trailer park, or constantly in trouble (although I did set some fires), I think that this story very efficiently captured the romance, adventure, courage, skepticism, fear & simple joy that was part of being young.

The chapters are nice & short. They are intertwined but not from the end of one chapter to the very beginning of the next. It certainly wasn't the best book I read, but it was fun & I enjoyed it. & I like supporting local artists. Perhaps you will enjoy it as well....
1 review1 follower
March 19, 2011
Short and Sweet Review Without Summary or Spoilers: This is tied with Meno's other well known book "Hairstyles of the Damned" for my ALL TIME FAVORITE BOOK! I had an awkward and difficult youth as well, and can totally relate to being a total loner wandering through creek beds and wooded areas despising the town I live in and all the people in it. The contrast between the two brothers' reactions to their fate is intriguing and the depiction of life in the rural Midwest is fairly accurate to what I'm told growing up in rural Midwest is really like (I grew up in suburban St. Louis, so I have been to a lot of rural Midwestern towns, and my sister-in-law is from a rural town). (Another Meno novel, "How The Hula Girl Sings" also depicts this life pretty accurately, specifically southern Illinois, but this time from an adult's perspective.) I totally recommend anything Meno's written, especially "Tender As Hellfire"
Profile Image for Danelle.
673 reviews13 followers
August 28, 2010
Tender as Hellfire spans a year in the life of an eleven-year-old boy named Dough, and his brother, Pill-Bug. A story of these two boys, their trailer park, and how their past is shaping both their present and future. This book is filled to the brim with trailer park life: mutilated dogs, cars on blocks, the truckstop waitress who entertains cowboys and drivers at night... All of this, a result of Dough's and Pill's father's unexpected death and their move to Tenderloin (home of the fighting meat packers) lead them directly into the anguished company of their own devils. The details in Meno's writing are vivid. He introduces a cast of kooky characters and explains them in 11-year-old-boy-speak with ease. It's a good book and at times it's painful to read what the boys are thinking and how they lose their innocence and how 'cursed' Dough thinks he is.
Profile Image for Caitlin.
166 reviews9 followers
March 15, 2011
This book disgusted me, made me smile, pissed me off, made me think that my lame-ass town isn't as bad as it could be, made me feel hopeless and hopeful at the same time. Having read Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno, I was expecting something similar. It was not. I felt connected to each of the characters, except Pill, but it was amazing how he pushed everyone away and did that to me as a reader. His purposeful distance made me connect to his personality. Overall, a good story. Not for weak stomachs in some parts. Dog fights are probably not the best thing to read about while you're working out on the elliptical. Blech.

Overall very impressed with this book. Joe Meno was only 24 years old when this book was published. Wise beyond his years and more.
Profile Image for Michelle.
82 reviews7 followers
October 27, 2008
Just a great book about a boy and how he sees his dyfunctional family
Profile Image for Sara.
33 reviews
February 9, 2009
this author is rekindling my love of reading. i feel my heart jump out and slice itself on the edges of some pages
Profile Image for Erin.
11 reviews1 follower
March 31, 2022
i'd never read a book that was set in a trailer park, let alone characters from a trailer park who weren't like...dehumanized in a weird way by being made commendable simply by virtue of them being from a trailer park and how hard that must be. it was really, really nice to read a book set somewhere like i grew up. down to the bunk beds man, it was so visceral and not something i'd ever found before in a book. there were so many times reading this novel where i had to hold my breath because the tension was so high. the ending few pages came together so perfectly, it's gut wrenching to read. really beautiful book with really great characters.
Profile Image for Matthew Kozak.
Author 2 books6 followers
April 25, 2016
I love coming of age stories - mostly in film - but also in books. Ones that come to mind are: Simon Birch (loosely based off of A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving), STAND BY ME, ROCKET SCIENCE (Indie Film in 2007), and of course - the first book; then movie - PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosky.

These are some of my favorite types of stories, and I would equate TENDER AS HELLFIRE by Joe Meno up there with PERKS for me - but an admittedly darker version, in a very different setting.

But like PERKS - this book is just as wild, and interesting and has just as important of characters and milestone moments.

I love Mr. Meno's description of mundane and everyday things - he takes the ordinary and sets fire to them.

The lighting of a cigarette; or the pre-pubescent thoughts of Dough for the women in his life (Miss Nelson, Val, etc.), a dog fight - all come to life with simple and sharp language that make paper cuts on the reader's heart and mind.

The characters also are replete and varying - and all interesting and important in their own ways. The Chief and the wolf story was one of my favorite parts of the book, and some of the most tension fused pages of reading I have ever had.

Great read, I put this up there with any coming of age tale I've read or seen in film.

In my opinion, a coming of age tale's story is only as strong as its characters and a reader's ability to sympathize and empathize with them, and Mr. Meno does both as well as I've seen, or experienced it done.

Thank you for this book.
Profile Image for Bridget.
72 reviews2 followers
September 17, 2013
Maybe if I could have read this when it came out, I'd be more impressed, but the whole thing feels super played out to me. Tender As Hellfire is the story of 10-year-old (turned 11-yrs) Dough and his 13-year-old brother Pill-bug. They're recently "white trash" after a move to a trailer park, the family following the mother's boyfriend there.

Everything is so over-the-top that I don't believe a damn word of it. The gimmicks and tricks are so obvious. Trying to make the narrator sound young by starting sentences with "I guess", when it doesn't make sense to say it. Trying to make the kids seem "harder than their ages" by having them smoking cigarettes, looking at "nudie mags" (like any 10-yr-old kid would call them that), and talking about having sex (in the crudest terms). AND the brother's supposed to seem very tough and stone-hearted because he sets fires to the property of people who cross him. Super cliched.

AND the narrator, Dough, is supposed to be 13 at the time of his having written the novel, having told his story. And the language is not at all what any 13-year-old kid would use. There's too much aesthetic distance that comes through the voice. I could probably buy these events happening to a 10- or 11-year old who has an older, thuggy brother and is from a poor neighborhood he's ashamed of. The awkwardness, the embarrassment, the perpetual anger! I can buy it! Just claim your narrator is 17+. No one who's 13 talks this way.
Profile Image for brain.
78 reviews2 followers
February 26, 2008
we-ell (always a good way to start a review)...avoiding the easy Salinger comparisons that inevitably arise whenever anyone writes something that isn't terrible featuring a protaganist under the age of eighteen or so, even if the comparison doesn't really fit, the book does capture a bit of that queer confusion surrounding being eleven or twelve. At the same time, the narrator's just a little too precocious for the book to ring true, and the various plotlines never really weave together into a cohesive, believable unit. This isn't to say the book's terrible, or even really bad, by any means. It's a breeze to read and Meno can turn a phrase that makes reading even a disjointed, unbelievable story a pleasure - but turns of phrase a fine piece of fiction do not make.

ps - i'm not going to review it because i read it several years ago, but another of Meno's books, hairstyles of the damned is as fine a book on adolescence as you'll ever read - and it doesn't even stoop to using an unreliable narrator.
Profile Image for Geoff.
948 reviews25 followers
March 10, 2015
I first encountered Joe Meno way back in 2011 when I read The Boy Detective Fails , which was a wonderfully quirky story. That following October at the 2011 Boston Book Festival I picked up this novel and it's taken me almost four years to get to it. I'd love to say it was worth the wait, but I'm not really sure and that had very little to do with Meno's writing.

This was by far one of the worst copy edited books I've ever read. I found a mistake about halfway through (see photo at the end) and then I found them on every two-to-three pages after that. They weren't even minor comma mistakes, which I'd miss, they were WHOLE WORDS MISSING FROM SENTENCES!

Click here to continue reading on my blog The Oddness of Moving Things.
Profile Image for Kevin.
Author 3 books21 followers
July 16, 2015
Oh god, what a piece of crap. I love Joe Meno's Demons in the Spring. It's one of my favorites, but everything about this book is sub-par. The writing is repetitive, redundant, and generalized. He's way too adjective happy, which in itself is not a big deal, but he's short on details. The voice does not ring as authentic for the character's age, place, and experience, and the rules governing what the narrator does and does not know seem to shift. The overall story feels slapped together and I was indifferent well before the ending came. You want to read a story of American grit? Try Last Exit to Brooklyn by Selby. You want a coming of age story of a roughneck boy? Try This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff. And please, read anything else by Joe Meno, cause he's great, but this is not.
Profile Image for Dave.
406 reviews5 followers
July 18, 2010
Sad tale of an American trailer park, complete with a cast of eccentric characters and how they interweave into the lives of Pill-Bug and Dough, two young boys forced to move by their mother sometime after their daddy dies unexpectedly. For teachers like me, it sheds a light on the unfortunate lives of lower-middle class/lower class students beyond the scope of school, and how their environs might shape their behavior. Themes of death and hopelessness run wild throughout, but I enjoyed Meno's descriptive nature. Another review I read said he used too many adjectives. Yikes. Writing that comes alive uses "show not tell" strategies folks. Full-bodied sincere depictions of scenes are often necessary.
Profile Image for Mary Beth.
3 reviews3 followers
March 7, 2009
meno is amazing and its a delight to see the world through dough's eyes. when you read the description of the book it seems like just another coming of age/young angst novel, yet meno's book is written for twenty-somethings who can appreciate a narrative that incorporates a glass eye, a handicapped dog, and an old man that salsa dances in the nude at midnight. my only problem with the book is the ending. meno starts to highlight the good vs. evil, doom vs. choice themes in a way that is too obvious and unnecessary. a more subtle working-trough of the end would give this 5 stars. nevertheless, i plan to read more meno.
Profile Image for Craig.
Author 9 books34 followers
February 11, 2017
Reminds me quite a lot of BIG FISH, and I don't mean that in a negative way. It's in the melding of youth, phantasmagoria, life & death, family and fiction that Meno elevates this to a very real exploration if growing up. The ending is a bit of a clunker as it leaves so much up in the air, but overall, a strong first novel.
Profile Image for allison.
92 reviews5 followers
July 7, 2008
The Joe Meno 4th of July holiday reading tradition continues for the fourth year in a row! I read the recently rereleased/reedited Akashic Books version of the text, and absolutely loved it. It may compete with Hairstyles of the Damned for my favorite Meno. It's about 10-20 pages too long, but incredibly sensitive and well done in general. It's his best achievement, so far, at marrying the noirish/potboiler form to the sadness and fumbling, precocious wisdom of a bunch of kids straight out of Salinger.
Profile Image for Katie.
22 reviews
September 24, 2008
Again, I had difficulty relating to the story itself. Probably didn't help that it was told from an 11 year old boy's perspective, but I still enjoyed the writing. I felt like I was reading a movie script or something, like I could picture everything playing out on a movie screen. I think this is because the writing is simple, lyrical and almost familial. And I am now extremely interested to see a glass eye in person... intriguing.
Profile Image for Ali.
301 reviews
June 16, 2013
There's just something about Joe Meno's style of writing that is so satisfying.

Reading this, I couldn't figure out what it was. Was it his sentence structures? Was it the story itself? Either way, I could hardly put this down.

(If you like this, you should also read Meno's most recent novel, Office Girl.)

I read Tender As Hellfire on a trip to NYC, mostly on the long(ish) subway trips across town. Thanks to this book, I have almost no memories of NYC transit. :)
Profile Image for Sarah.
Author 3 books21 followers
February 27, 2015
While early Meno reeks of the Story Workshop, Tender As Hellfire lacks the cliche overuse of grit and gore that often appears in related works. Tender As Hellfire uses huge amounts of grit, gore, and profanity but it works to an end of illustrating the town and characters within the world of the narrator, Dough. Meno is a crafty writer whose language is worth staying for but the plot moves slowly and ends sadly and without resolution.
Profile Image for Patjones.
35 reviews4 followers
October 5, 2007
If Salinger had written about white trash in middle America rather than middle class in the North East, he may have written something pretty similar to Tender As Hellfire. It is a well told coming of age story as related by the younger of a pair of troubled brothers. The only reason I've given it three stars as opposed to four is I am not sure of it's re-read value.
Profile Image for Vaughan.
102 reviews4 followers
August 7, 2010
Maybe 3 and a half. Discovered this on a whim and read it near the end of the school year. The usual growing up poor, weird, an outsider, but done really nicely. The story breaks down some near the end--starts out great but doesn't always deliver, but I think this is his first book, and it was good enough to get me to buy others.
Profile Image for Melanie Ullrich.
175 reviews6 followers
May 27, 2014
I love books about down-and-out families, and this one did not disappoint. Meno does a great job at describing his characters to the point where you can really feel the hardships and the mental scars of past traumas. This book really had its ups and downs for me and took longer to read than I like. I will still try the rest of Meno's collection.
December 31, 2014
An amazing book. The story of two brothers with unusual names - Dough and Pill. Deceased father gave them these names to toughen them up. The book is well-written and the story is compelling. While the story takes the characters to the extreme, I think it is a story many children growing up today will recognize as their own.
Profile Image for April.
8 reviews5 followers
October 7, 2007
Now, I know I'm going out on a limb here...but I'm going to say that Joe Meno is a modern day JD Salinger. His books are touching in that "coming of age" way that Catcher In The Rye was for us all. I really love his fiction.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 62 reviews

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