Teenage protagonists conjured by nonteenage writers can be tricky. Invariably, both the character and the author end up seeming like unrelatable geezers. Bryan Charles neatly sidesteps this trap in his first novel, Grab On to Me Tightly As If I Knew the Way. The book’s antihero, Vim Sweeney, would be 31 by now, around the age of Charles himself—and most of the book’s intended audience. It’s 1992: Punk breaks, and not much spectacular is happening in Kalamazoo, Mich. Vim is in a garage band called the Judy Lumpers (“Dinosaur Jr Jr”) and worships cough syrup and a girl with scars who declares Naked Lunch to be her “bible.” This I Love the 90s potpourri could easily slouch toward sentimentality, and it occasionally does. (Gosh, remember when Kurt was still alive and everything was possible?) But Charles’ somewhat heavy hand produces not only a convincing, pitiable sketch of a teenager but also a disarming main character. Over the novel’s course, Vim loses his virginity—well, maybe; he doesn’t quite remember—and, instead of high-fiving his bandmates, he cries alone at the hollow connection of sex with a stranger. At parties, he favors White Russians (“tastes like fucking cereal”). He has no opinion on the first-time-around bombing of Iraq or his estranged father. He thinks Pearl Jam sucks, but rightly contends that Dinosaur Jr Jr Sr’s “You’re Living All Over Me is a biblical artifact on par with Nevermind or Doolittle.” It’s all so uncomfortably familiar that you can’t help wanting to cut this wound-up kid some slack. Charles also has a talent for creating scenes in record stores and at all-ages shows that are almost cinematic, viewed through a teenager’s vigilant eye for tribal details that will be most evocative to readers of a certain age: “A gaggle of emo kids with backpacks, bleached hair, giant jeans. A guy with Rites of Spring drawn in marker on his triple-XL shirt. Another guy has Soul Side. Jawbreaker, the Morton salt girl. When it Pains it Roars. Fat black Xs painted on hands.” You can almost smell the Magnum felt-tip. Unfortunately, Charles, or at least his publisher, lets the reminiscing nearly run into product placement. The book’s back matter contains a distracting and vaguely patronizing list of “recommended listening” (Jawbreaker, Superchunk) and reading, as well as an interview with the author about his literary favorites, including Jesus’ Son author Denis Johnson. Johnson’s bleak-is-beautiful influence can be readily detected in both the form and color of Charles’ prose, but the effect is so suited to Vim’s state of mind that the echo is never a distraction. As an aging hipster himself, Charles knows his readership well. He has created what is inarguably an exercise in nostalgia, but it is a gentle and candid one. Wince at Vim’s enthusiasm, his expectation of the sublime where there will be just more detached sex; cringe at his maudlin, hardassed fatalism and woefully pubescent understanding of love and loss. Hell, throw on House of GVSB and thank God that neither you nor Vim are kids anymore.—Shauna Cowal