In the 1960s Hubert Selby, Jr. introduced us to the underbelly of the American city, the prostitutes and drug addicts, the pimps and theives. He gave them faces, names and personalities. On the other side of the board in the same decade, Richard Yates introduced us to the dark side of Suburbia. He perfectly captured the discontent, the restlessness, the boredom, and the pretty face that gets plastered on all of it. Cut to today, television shows, movies, books, stories, they all have plot lines that revolve around suburban housewives addicted to prescription pain killers, mood elevators, muscle relaxants and everything in between.
And yet, for me, there was always something missing. Whether I was huddled in my room reading of junkies, pimps and whores, or watching the original Beverly Hills 90210 (where the rich kids always had problems), there was an element that seemed missing to me. My element was missing. Where was I in these stories? I wasn't a rich kid in Beverly Hills, I wasn't a junkie on a street corner. I could appreciate all these stories, but could I relate to anything more than fleeting similarities? Absolutely not.
That is, until I read Ballads of Suburbia by Stephanie Kuehnert. If you scroll back in the archives of this blog, you'll find my review of Ms. Kuehnert's first book, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, and as much as I loved that book, Ballads of Suburbia hits on something so raw and so unspoken that at times it was almost shocking to read. This book doesn't shy away from the unsavory behavior of teenagers, nor does it fail to capture the extreme tragedy befalling many of America's teens as their parents cart them off to the safety of suburban wastelands.
Ballads of Suburbia bridges the gap between Yates and Selby, Jr. It brings the dark, gritty reality of teenage culture in suburban America to the surface through a cast of characters that are hard not to love. Like Last Exit to Brooklyn, Stephanie Kuehnert puts a face on the drug addled and disaffected youth of the quiet, tree-lined streets of Oak Park, Illinois. Like Yates, she puts a dark and dystopic spin on the outwardly beautiful face of the suburbs.
This book is an achievement and solidifies the place of Stephanie Kuehnert as a powerhouse writer, and one that is unafraid to tackle hard and tender issues. I can't wait to read what she writes next.