Author: Adam Rapp
Publication Date: 5/12/09
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Blurb(GR): An award-winning writer and playwright hits the open road for a searing novel-in-letters about a street kid on a highstakes trek across America.
For a runaway boy who goes by the name "Punkzilla," kicking a meth habit and a life of petty crime in Portland, Oregon, is a prelude to a mission: reconnecting with his older brother, a gay man dying of cancer in Memphis. Against a backdrop of seedy motels, dicey bus stations, and hitched rides, the desperate fourteen-year-old meets a colorful, sometimes dangerous cast of characters. And in letters to his sibling, he catalogs them all — from an abusive stranger and a ghostly girl to a kind transsexual and an old woman with an oozing eye. The language is raw and revealing, crackling with visceral details and dark humor, yet with each interstate exit Punkzilla’s journey grows more urgent: will he make it to Tennessee in time? This daring novel offers a narrative worthy of Kerouac and a keen insight into the power of chance encounters.
I’d basically like to hold this up to all those people in camp “YA has abandoned boys” as an example of how YA has…you know…not abandoned boys. Of course, that might be problematic because I’m pretty sure that that particular camp shares a lot of members with camp “YA is too dark.” And this book is plenty o’ dark. Or at least, it certainly contains the hallmarks of what those lovely campers like to label as “dark”. This book contains drug use, violence, sex, parental abandonment, cancer, and a very realistic portrayal of what life is like for a runaway teen. I honestly kept putting down my kindle every few chapters while reading this and thinking – is this really YA? But yes, the silver embossed P on the front assures me that it is. I think what astonished me the most about this book is how positive it is – even with all of those “dark” themes – this book feels hopeful and sweet.
Too often I find that books featuring “troubled boys” are not about troubled boys at all. They’re about boys who are kind and gentle and good and oh, if the world could only see things from their point of view then they wouldn’t be so misunderstood and blah blah blah – it’s as if there’s this belief that genuinely violent, troubled boys are not deserving of sympathy. I think it was incredibly brave of Adam Rapp to give us a boy who does live rough, use drugs, and who has (like pretty much all of us) not escaped his childhood without real scars. He has been discarded by his parents, abused and misused, and he survives by committing acts of violence. He is that boy that so many in our society would spare one glance to and summarily label completely beyond redemption.
I was surprised by how attached I became to Jamie (Punkzilla to his friends). On the surface he’s a fourteen year old uneducated, violent thug coming down from his first meth hit, on a greyhound bus trying to get to his older brother. Perhaps he’s a bit of that under the surface as well. But just like every uneducated, violent thug out there, he is more than just a collection of his worst attributes, and this book really challenges the reader to sympathize with him. And that is why this book is so powerful to me – it rings so true. Maybe there are one or two people out there who are just one hundred percent evil with no redeeming qualities, but I think that most of us have layers. Jamie is also insecure and intelligent and lonely and compassionate and a very loyal brother.
I also was really blown away by Adam Rapp’s writing. It’s bright and messy and fluid. He captures the voice of fourteen year old Jamie perfectly in letters – they’re cluttered and painfully honest, full of Jamie’s bravado in the face of terrifying circumstances and the fear and grief that he can’t quite cover up. Through letters from Jamie, Jamie’s parents, his brother, friends, and military school teachers, Adam Rapp gives us a very panoramic view of Jamie’s life and circumstances. I was held by this book from beginning to end.
Perfect Musical Pairing
The National – Bloodbuzz Ohio