The Long Hairs by John Paz

The Long Hairs is a portrait of suburban adolescence – and all of the accompanying insolence, scheming, dreaming, and merrymaking – as seen through the eyes of protagonist James “Jimmy Chek” Mikolajczyk, a self-identifying “long hair”, or (“authentic”) rocker. It unfolds in snapshots that highlight Jimmy’s life, broken up into very digestible chapters. With the honest straightforwardness of a confessional memoir, John Paz’s novel follows Jimmy on a journey in and out of schools, correctional institutions, friendships, relationships, criminality, parties, and hard work across the suburbs of Seattle in the late 1980s.

Easily eschewing the schmaltzy tropes of the typical Bildungsroman, Jimmy’s story is much more about providing slice-of-life insight into a teenager’s thoughts and experiences over a few years than it is about his evolution into an adult. We are thrown into a tumultuous world of delinquency, drugs, rock music, and the loss of virginity, but The Long Hairs never really attempts to explore why kids can get up to so much trouble, or make a greater statement on youth, culture, growing up, or sexuality – Jimmy does mature a bit, but it can feel that we don’t really participate in or understand the critical dynamics of his development. Instead, the focus is on providing frank insight into the pragmatic operations of this young demographic through realistic dialogue and relationships; the novel is grounded on real speech patterns and personalities we recognize from our own pasts. The story is colored by historical and cultural markers; abundant are references to music – rock and its harsher subgenres especially – although there is not enough of a taste of the feeling of the cultural scenes to make them resonate much with readers not already familiar, or to give Jimmy’s world a lot of personality. Similarly, the descriptions often want for poetics; new elements, like characters, are always introduced with the same tired, descriptive formulae. In fact, The Long Hairs operates a bit like a teen movie, for better or for worse – the limited and conventional depictions can make these teens in Seattle feel slightly like they could almost be anyone, anywhere. But unlike pop teen products, The Long Hairs easily avoids the glamor of endless keg parties and spirited looting in favor of more down-to-earth flavors. If a bit bland, the prose is largely crystal clear; the writing is crisp and easily self-propels forward. The situations in which Jimmy finds himself, from keggers to run-ins with the law, are all truly exciting and amusing without being over the top, cheesy, or glitzy. Furthermore, The Long Hairs still manages to let a warm and genuine sentimentality shine naturally through. It is a book of honest feeling, humor, and thrills that – rather than dissecting or preaching – leaves us very fond of Jimmy and all of his antics.