Meet Harbinger Jones, who goes by the less weighty name of Harry. Harry is in his last year of high school and applying to various colleges. To impress the “Faceless Admissions Professional” (FAP for short), Harry eschews the standard 250 word essay on his application and instead writes over 200 pages about his short but eventful life, which makes up Len Vlahos’ YA novel The Scar Boys.
When Harry was eight years old, the neighborhood bullies tied him to a tree. The tree caught fire when it was struck by lightning. Harry was burned by the fire and is now hideously scarred and disfigured. This doesn’t exactly make him Mr. Popularity, and Harry pretty much believes he’ll face a life devoid of friends.
Then he meets Johnny McKenna when Johnny’s family moves to town. Johnny isn’t put off by Harry’s scars and soon the two boys become best friends. Harry goes from a life of isolation and bullying to one where he feels a bit of hope. If a popular, handsome kid like Johnny likes him, then he can’t be so horrible after all.
While in high school, Harry is rejected by a girl. To comfort Harry, Johnny comes up with a great idea. “Let’s start a band,” claims Johnny. Hmm, a band? Maybe being in a band is what Harry needs. Musicians are cool, right? And it shouldn’t matter that neither Harry nor Johnny know how to play an instrument. They’ll figure something out. So Johnny decides to sing and Harry picks up a guitar and begins lessons. They name the band The Scar Boys and bring on a drummer and a bassist. Now they are ready to rock!
The Scar Boys hone their skills and start performing. It is on stage where Harry truly feels he can shine. He’s no longer a disfigured freak; he’s a rock star! The Scar Boys become more popular and get more local gigs, including one pivotal gig at New York City’s iconic CBGBs. And when The Scar Boys lose their first bass player they replace him with Cheyenne, a beautiful young woman who both Harry and Johnny take a strong liking to.
Soon the Scar Boys go on a summer tour where in-between gigs they face car problems, money woes, in-fighting amongst the band members, petty jealousies, girl trouble, organizational issues and other dilemmas fledgling rock and rollers face.
But most of all, Harry just faces the usual problems of growing up. He seriously crushes on Cheyenne, but of course, she just likes him as a friend. And besides, she and Johnny are hooking up.
And speaking of Johnny, Harry is slowly beginning to realize maybe Johnny isn’t so much of a friend as much as a “frenemy.” Until now, Johnny was the leader to Harry’s follower, but is Johnny worth following? Harry is beginning to question his devotion to Johnny, which pisses Johnny off. Johnny proves to be just as messed up as Harry only his messes are easier to cover up under a handsome visage and boat loads of self-confidence. Will the Scar Boys survive all this turmoil?
The Scar Boys never quite make it to rock and roll glory, but being in a band is a catalyst for Harry. Sure, he’s hideously scarred, his parents don’t always understand him, he can’t get a girl and his best friend is a total dick. But hey, he was in a rock and roll band and he spent one glorious (and yes, very trying summer) touring the country while a lot of his peers toiled at McDonald’s or at the mall. That’s got to impress the FAPs at Harry’s chosen colleges, right?
Well, I hope the FAPs are impressed because I certainly was. No, Harry isn’t perfect. He could be just as irritating as any other teenage boy, and I wasn’t going to cut him any slack just because of his scars. But in the end I couldn’t help but like the kid. I applaud him for taking up an instrument, forming a band and touring the country even if it was for a short time. I also liked how he bypassed the typical 250 college entrance essay (boring) and wrote something actually interesting. Harry is an original, with an engaging voice that kept me captivated. Sure, I wish Cheyenne was a more developed character, but I do understand we are seeing Cheyenne through the lens of Harry’s experiences, not who she really is.
I also loved how The Scar Boys used the title of songs to head each chapter, many that will make any rock and roll lover misty-eyed with musical memories. Including amongst these titles were songs by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, The Violent Femmes, Van Halen, Pat Benatar, Joy Division, REM and The Rolling Stones. I thought it was only fitting several of the chapters were the titles of songs by the Ramones considering I was reading this novel when I found out about the death of the last original Ramone, Tommy Ramone (RIP). And as a rapidly aging Generation X-er, I loved the fact that The Scar Boys takes place in the 1980s. Furthermore, when he was younger, Vlahos was in a band called the Woofie Cookies. He knows what he’s writing about.
Apparently, The Scar Boys is Len Vlahos first novel. I hope it’s not his last.