After having read 3 Adam Rapp YA novels, so far there are a couple of constants. Thematically, violence and abuse are always key elements in his novels. Stylistically, on the other hand, Rapp is almost Faulknerian in his insistence on voice.
In an almost naturalistic way Rapp shows the influence one’s social conditions and environment have on the human character. And when one grows up in a highly violent environment, violence invariably begets violence. However, it must be made clear that there is absolutely no gratuity to the violence you encounter in 33 Snowfish. Boobie, Custis and Curl behave in a way that appears incredibly crude and cruel, and it really is, but it’s not violence in the “Fuck you, you fucking fuck” Joe Pesci kind of way. These kids behave the way they behave because they have had to grown up in situations that are so tough, so completely caught off from any form of human decency, a world in which violence, brutality and abuse are the norm rather than the exception. In a 2000 interview with Adam Rapp, Ann Angel aptly describes Rapp’s characters as “naively innocent adolescents caught in violent and emotionally isolated places”. The fact that someone like Custis – a 10-year-old! – is almost “naively violent”, in his acts as well as in his use of language, is what makes a lot of what happens to him so tragic: he’s never known anything else. In that same interview Rapp says: “I am not interested in romanticizing or sensationalizing violence. I am interested in honoring what I know to be true.”
In the end though, especially Custis’s behavior is just that: the way he behaves. And it is a triumph of the resiliency of the human mind and spirit that he can get to a point where redemption seems possible after all that he has seen and done. However, we don’t need to be naïve or mistaken, either. Kids like Custis don’t all make it. Custis is boy who escaped from his pedophile kidnapper. Boobie is an arsonist who probably also killed his parents in his latest act, after which he just takes his baby brother to sell on the streets. Curl is a 15-year-old drug addicted prostitute. There’s no way all three can beat the odds and Boobie and Curl’s stories show us the other options, both of which are as realistic as Custis’s chance at salvation is.
Style-wise, 33 Snowfish is not all that different from The Children and the Wolves (in which you also get three voices) or Punkzilla. In 33 Snowfish we get Custis (whose narrative dominates the novel), Curl and Boobie (whose voice consists of drawings only, drawings that are as basic and nihilistic as Boobie’s own acts and intentions). Language and voice are ways for Rapp to explore the world of his characters and both almost create the story. Stream-of-consciousness is then the almost logical narrative device to carry a character’s voice, giving the novel a certain cadence and musicality that is almost unique in YA literature today. It should come as no surprise that Rapp refers to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in the motto of 33 Snowfish. Like Faulkner, Rapp seems to believe that a true exploration and evocation of a character’s situation can only be done from the inside, not from a detached impersonal point of view (as could be equally tempting considering the subject matter). We get as close to Custis, Curl and Boobie as narratively possible, which is why in the end – despite the horrible things that these characters do and say – a reader can “sympathize” with them. Not pitying them or feeling sorry for them, though, but understanding them and thinking and feeling with them. Custis, for instance, is never guilty of self-pity (so the reader shouldn’t be either), but he acts and reacts in accordance to what he encounters in life, and as it just happens, what he encounters in life is painful, cruel, even nauseating.
In another interview way back in 2000, Adam Rapp claims to “admire Cormac McCarthy’s phenomenal gift of language”, but she shouldn’t be worried. He’s blessed plenty with that gift himself. As for the cat, I think I’m ready to read that Faulkner book again now.