A Review of The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos
Egmont USA, 2014
by REBECCA, April 2, 2014
When Harbinger (Harry) Jones was eight he was tied to a tree that got struck by lightning, leaving him badly scarred. After a childhood mostly without friends, Harry clicks with popular, charming Johnny in the 8th grade and they become inseparable. Then they start a band, and Harry realizes that onstage he can be everything he’s always wanted to be. This is Harry’s story of starting the band and everything that came after.
Harbinger Jones is one of the cooler names out there, Scar Boys has an awesome cover, I love music, and I love scars, so basically this book was perfectly poised to tickle me pink. And it’s not a bad book by any means. But it’s definitely more easy listening than heavy metal; more soft rain than lightning strike.
The premise of the book is that it’s the essay Harry’s writing to apply to the University of Scranton. It’s supposed to be 250 words but—whoopsie—Harry goes over. Like, 256 pages over. Now, this is not an uncommon conceit; I mean, The Outsiders nails it, amiright? But it has a few drawbacks in The Scar Boys‘ case. Most important is the distance it imparts to the narrative. Harry is both writing about his experiences retrospectively, and with an eye toward whipping them into life lessons for the purposes of a college admissions essay, all of which makes this feel more like an adult looking back on his childhood than a teenager living his life. Author Len Vlahos also seems to be writing a somewhat autobiographical novel here, which likely exacerbates that sense of remove.
The fact that he’s extrapolating life lessons for the Faceless Admissions Professional (or FAP) as he tells his story also really undercuts any true emotion. Harry writes about something terrible that happened to him and makes the reader feel for him, then immediately says something to the FAP like “Of course, I should have known better, but I was an idiot then,” which makes the reader feel like, “Oh, well, I guess I shouldn’t feel anything for you, then.” By undercutting the true affective currency of Harry’s experiences, Vlahos winds up with an unintentionally flat emotional landscape.
The voice Harry uses (addressing the FAP) also makes me feel less like I know him as a character, so even the elements of Harry’s psyche that I was interested in didn’t really resonate. For example, though the chapters are titled after songs and Harry talks about the feeling of playing the guitar, there isn’t much of a sense of musicality here. There are a number of really good books about music—one of my favorites, as far as communicating musicality in addition to describing music, is Emma Bull’s amazing War For the Oaks, written the year Vlahos’ novel is set—and The Scar Boys, for all its insistence upon music’s crucial role in its characters’ lives, doesn’t really deliver.
The Scar Boys is set in the late seventies and eighties—Harry writes his essay in 1987. Now, usually I don’t agree when people are like, “What was the point of setting the book in xxxx?” because I think the point is that the author chooses an emotional and historical landscape for their work. In the case of The Scar Boys, though, I found myself mildly irritated by the setting. And not (as I imagine some younger readers might be) because it’s unfamiliar to me. I was young in the eighties, but I was alive, and I’m certainly familiar with all the music Vlahos mentions. Rather, I was annoyed because it allowed for what felt like a loosey-goosey relationship between the characters and their musical influences.
There was very little specificity in what music Harry liked (or why) and, unfortunately, looked at from a distance of thirty years, the bands that announce the chapters all cohere into a fairly canonical group of white dudes. Of course, in 1987 when Harry is writing his essay, there is a huge difference between the upbeat pop hit “Daydream Believer,” by the Monkees (1967) and the tongue-in-cheek single “Punk Rock Girl,” by The Dead Milkmen, but none of that comes through—these pieces of music history become nothing more than titles that announce the theme of the chapter. Also, I believe “Punk Rock Girl” came out in 1988.
So many of these issues—perhaps even the wishy-washy use of music—could have been solved by nixing the college admissions essay conceit, so that’s a bummer. The story is solid, though: music bringing people together and tearing people apart, the trials and tribulations of touring in a junky van, etc. I actually thought Vlahos was at his best when writing about Harry as a kid—likely because it was more difficult for writer-Harry to comment on himself—his realization that the lightning strike changed his parents’ lives as well as his, his practice of dividing the world up into types of people based on how they react to his scars, and a few truly gutting memories of his father’s cruelty. Even these, though, are breezed through quickly, proofs of pain to shore up our sympathies for Harry later on.
The most poignant drama, for me, was between Harry and his best friend Johnny. As Harry gains confidence through music, he realizes that while Johnny’s been a good friend to him—a necessary friend—he’s also only comfortable when he’s in control, and Harry’s newfound confidence threatens him. These scenes were very well done and gave The Scar Boys at least a sprinkle of something.
Overally, The Scar Boys is a pleasant enough read, but doesn’t have much to recommend it, I don’t think, that you can’t find elsewhere. Check out the readalikes for some suggestions.
Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going (2004). Anyone who is interested in a music-playing protagonist that doesn’t have the greatest self esteem should read Fat Kid Rules the World. Dare I say it does everything that The Scar Boys does only better? Yea, I dare. My full review is HERE.
Beautiful Music For Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills (2012). Again, a book about the power of music to express ourselves—especially the parts of ourselves that we often keep under wraps for fear of what the world might think. Awesome book. My full review is HERE.
And, here is a list I compiled last year for Banned Books Week, called “Boo, Banned Books; Yay, Band Books: 10 Books About the Power of Music.”
procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publishers (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos is available now.