Photograph: Jeff Sciortino
Joe Meno

In an act of kindness to me, Joe Meno has feigned an interest in porn. As we peruse the adults only section of Quimby’s, his favorite bookstore, he uncomfortably chuckles at X-rated comic books like Bondage Fairies Extreme and Were-Slut. (“They’re like werewolves,” he offers, “but I guess they’re sluts.”) When his eye catches a crudely drawn newsprint comic across the store, the pornographic spell-a halfhearted ruse, intended to add some spice to this profile-is easily broken. “Oooh . . . Tiny Unicorn by Megan Whitmarsh,” Meno gushes in his gentle, nasal voice. “Do you know this one?”

Sentimental affection for cute creatures seems contradictory coming from a 32-year-old with a black T-shirt and tattoos. This is, after all, the punk rock writer, crowned by critics as the dark heir to Salinger. Meno earned these accolades for the harsh insight into high-school misery in his 2004 novel Hairstyles of the Damned, which became one of the bigger independent publishing success stories of the past decade, selling 60,000 copies.

In September, Punk Planet Books, an imprint of the indie publisher Akashic, will publish Meno’s fifth book, The Boy Detective Fails. In it, an aging– Hardy Boys–type sleuth, his glory days behind him, tries to negotiate the bleak world of adulthood. Meno seems to want to capture the sense of misery and mundane daily life that permeates the work of two of his idols, cartoonists Chris
Ware and Daniel Clowes. Yet, ultimately, his explorations of loyalty, love, and the power of childlike wonderment make the novel engrossing and endearing. The punk rock writer, it seems, is exposing himself as a genuine sweetheart.

“Usually a coming-of-age story is about a younger character becoming mature,” says Meno, “but I wanted to explore the idea that when you become an adult it’s necessary to find moments of wonder and mystery.”

Although The Boy Detective Fails is not overtly biographical, Meno, like his main character, found success at an early age. The South Sider was barely in his 20s when his first book, Tender as Hellfire, was published by mainstream press St. Martin’s. After his early books sold modestly, the Columbia College grad (he’s now a professor there) started to apply techniques he learned in underground music to his literary career (he has played guitar in bands since high school). He left excerpts in bookstores and rock clubs and drove around the country to small readings. Ultimately, he came to realize that a dedicated small publisher offered more care and understanding than a corporate press.

Back at Quimby’s, Meno leafs through Dictator Style, an art book celebrating the interior decorating of historical despots, including Saddam Hussein. “As I was writing [Boy Detective], America was getting ready to move into Iraq, and things were just terrible,” he says. “But one of the worst things to do is to be completely jaded and say, ‘Yeah, we’re all doomed.’ I don’t feel that way; I feel hopeful. It’s easy to be totally terrified by things that are out of order. But I think the real moments that mean something occur when you don’t have the answers. That’s what this book is about.”

As we leave Quimby’s, Meno grabs a copy of another ragged photocopied ‘zine called Little Book, and smiles at the awkwardly rendered horned stallion on the cover. “Look!” he bubbles. “Another unicorn!”