Punkzilla (by Adam Rapp)

24 09 2010

PunkzillaAnyway sometimes I’ll just think about Cornelia Zenkich riding her skateboard like her legs and her perky little ass and her titties sort of pushing up against the inside of that sleeveless black T-shirt and her soft pink nipples tasting like peppermint and then that Cornelia Zenkich smell starts making a pleasure cloud in my mind. Anyway that’s what I was thinking about when Buck Tooth Jenny was giving me a left-handed Christmas hand job.” (Punkzilla, Candlewick Press, 2009, p. 21)

Even though Punkzilla received the Michael L. Printz award for ‘Excellence in Young Adult Literature’ from the ALA, I was completely new to Adam Rapp and the reputation that preceded him.  I didn’t have any expectations about this novel (thematically or otherwise), which I think is the best way to approach it if you really want to be smitten with it as I was.

The first thing that came to my mind was that it’s like reading a teenage version of Kerouac’s On the road.  But then, I don’t actually like On the road very much, or at least I think it’s a widely overrated book that you can probably only fully appreciate when you are (or have been) in a certain… state of mind. Punkzilla on the other hand can be read, and enjoyed by just about anyone with a bit of a heart and soul.

The premise of the book is actually quite mundane in the world of YA-fiction: dysfunctional teen Jamie (‘Punkzilla’) doesn’t fit in at home, is sent away to Military School by his father, a retired Major, and consequently  goes AWOL because of the strict regime he can’t cope with. He ends up in Portland, Oregon (not Maine), and starts stealing his way through life, mostly iPods. One of the people he encounters in the book even asks him if he’s “one of them Fagan boys”. So yes, the theme is as old as any Dickensian novel.

The big appeal of this book, and the way it clearly distinguishes itself,  lies in the style Adam Rapp uses. Just like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, this book is an epistolary novel, a genre with obvious limitations. Rapp, however, cleverly tries to overcome these by playing with the chronology of the book, but – more importantly – by giving each letter writer a clear voice and an individual writing style. The Major’s style is predictably strict and stern; Jamie’s mom’s letter are quite momsy; etc. However, the standout voice clearly has to be Jamie’s, whose stream-of-consciousness confessions and rants just jump off the page with their innocent candor. Now, innocent, is not how you would describe the events that lead to Jamie’s current state of mind: he’s a pre-pubescent ADD meth-taking potsmoker, and yet… his voice is truthful and sincere, his words are never ironical and he yet has to reach that phase of self-absorbed teen cynicism.

After staying in Portland for a couple of months, Jamie decides to visit his brother P in Memphis, who confesses in one of his letters that he’s dying of cancer. This decision leads to a road trip across America’s underbelly,  as we stumble upon society’s throwaways in seedy motels, Greyhound stations, and roadside restrooms. In this world of transsexuals and amateur-photographers Rapp tries to capture the transitory nature of human encounters.

Punkzilla is never another bleak house –to stay with the Dickensian references. It is a deeply emotional and even hopeful book.  Most of the outcasts we meet may have lost nearly everything, but during their chance meeting with Jamie they may at least have found integrity.

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27 07 2012
The Children and the Wolves (by Adam Rapp) « Ringo the Cat's Blog

[…] Rapp is a risk taker pur sang. The cat absolutely loved Punkzilla. One of its most striking features may have been the ease with which Rapp gives each character a […]

20 03 2013
33 Snowfish (by Adam Rapp) | Ringo the Cat's Blog

[…] 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 […]

9 03 2014
The Buffalo Tree (by Adam Rapp) | Ringo the Cat's Blog

[…] hallmark signs of “an Adam Rapp novel” and already show his mad talent. I’d previously read Punkzilla, The Children and the Wolves and 33 Snowfish, and each of those reading experiences left me […]

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