Beauty & the beholder
by Jim Piechota
Hairdresser on Fire by Daniel LeVesque; Manic D Press, $15.95
If there's any heft to the adage that "truth is stranger than fiction," look no further than Oakland author and "recovering hairburner" Daniel LeVesque's debut novel, Hairdresser on Fire. The book is about the life of a Rhode Island boy (LeVesque is from Woonsocket) who immerses himself in the cosmetology industry. Could this be autobiographical fiction? And if so, how much truth can be found in its wild romp through the industries of art and beauty?
The short novel follows Francis, a supremely odd duck of a boy, growing up in suburban 1980s Rhode Island, a place where, once he discovers the public transit system, "my preteen life started to blossom." By "blossom," Francis means he gets to traipse to the mall to huddle in the back of the local Waldenbooks store studying a copy of The Joy of Gay Sex, eagerly digesting the hows and whats of his pubescent urges. From there, he ventures to the Spencer Gifts poster display, snapping past "all the Cheryl Tiegs and the Cheryl Ladds" to ogle "the hairy fireman one, where you could see the top of his bush poking above his yellow rubber pants with red suspenders." Francis is a boy who knows what he likes, and this book is all about that.
LeVesque's novel brims with quirky characters much like Francis, but they serve to complement, not detract from, his adventures of personal discovery, not all of which are sunny. Francis dabbles in a heroin habit with first boyfriend "Sudsy," and gets his Goth on with a house stinking of "anise and cut-rate incense" and loaded with "mesh-covered bodies slung across couches." Desperation and a forlorn sense of homesickness eventually drive Francis to retreat back to his mother's house in Providence, where he gets busy "plotting how to keep myself stocked up on heroin, how to keep Sudsy at bay, and how to turn my newfound cafe job into a viable art career, or any career at all." Classes at the Rhode Island School of Design bore him, but they soon become a gateway to the mysteriously windowless Marco Botelo School of Cosmetology and Hair Design. It is there where he revels in pin curls, finger waves, and mock color applications on mannequins that eventually become real hair models. He practices on his sister for his final licensing exam.
Hair jobs will fling Francis far and wide, from New York to San Francisco, with enough melodrama, heated psychotherapy sessions, co-stylist "diva-ness," and fried hair to fill a large, full-service salon. He's still traveling onward via Greyhound bus by book's end, and one wonders where in the world Francis will find himself next.
LeVesque is a talent to reckon with; his knack for fluid, contemporary, edgy prose is evident on every page of this brisk novel. By the final page, the question for readers is not whether this book is autobiographical, but when the author's next work of genius will be published.