Cons: 15 words isn't enough to explain them all
In late 2006, Adam Rapp released his fifth young adult novel Under the Wolf, Under the Dog. It was a major disappointment following earlier works of extreme strength. Punkzilla is mournfully awful. Adam Rapp is young adult writer, playwright, director and so on. Purely from the young adult category, the quality of his work has dropped so precipitately that I have to wonder why he goes on with it. I have written the same about Chuck Palahinuk’s career (all novels published after Fight Club up to 2008 have been so bad I had to wonder why his publisher didn’t look at the material and say that if they had been his first novel, they would have rejected it out of hand).
Since I am a collector, and since I have all of the works Mr. Rapp has published, I will continue to buy them; however, unless he can find the voice that created the emotionally rending The Copper Elephant and 33 Snowfish, I beg him to stop writing books from this perspective.
Punkzilla is an epistolary novel. The vast majority of the material is letters written in a journal. Jamie (aka Punkzilla) is the youngest of 3 sons and junkie/thief soon-to-be. Though almost 15 he has still not entered puberty, a subject of great concern for the boy. The letters he writes begin on his way from Portland, OR to Memphis where his oldest brother lives. Jamie ran to Portland after going AWOL from a military academy he was banished to after an event of petty theft. He becomes a petty thief in Portland and maintains a small cadre of friends in similar positions.
Peter (P in the letters) is 12 years older than Jamie, a playwright and actor who is also gay. Knowing his younger brother is in trouble, Peter sends enough money for Jamie to take a Greyhound to Memphis. Shortly after beginning the trip, Jamie is attacked and robbed during a brief stop. From here, Jamie spends a couple of weeks hitchhiking from Idaho to extreme west Tennessee.
There are specific motives behind the major actions, but in case someone wants to read the novel after I all but condemn it, I will refrain from spelling them out.
Taken solely, the novel is awful (first the style, then the plot matter). The main narrator is supposed to be days away from 15, but he writes like a 25-30 year-old trying to sound like a kid. Despite being set in 2008, the slang is out of date, but it is so inconsistently used that this fact is not entirely relevant. His vocabulary is also far too advanced—this trait is pawned off as him being a gifted writer, but that was so clunky, it read as if it was tacked on much later. The other letter writers—parents, brothers, neighborhood girl, head cadet at the academy—sound exactly the same. Their letters are very brief by and large but they are so like each other it is impossible to tell them apart and they are also close enough in delivery it seems like careless writing.
Culturally Jamie is so shifted that it is all but impossible to accept him as real. His musical tastes are based on middle-to-late punk (The Dead Kennedeys among others) that he says his older brother introduced him to. Peter could only have been 5 at the oldest when the bands listed and implied ended their brief careers. Yes it is possible that Peter had these punk aspects handed down to him as he seemed to do to Jamie, but there is no indication of it. Too much of Jamie is built on this notion to ignore, so this oddness is not a trifle.
Jamie meets a strange array of people after being mugged in a Greyhound restroom. An ancient woman and her son, a too-bright kid and his unassuming woman, a pre-op transsexual, a borderline-pedophile, and a relatively normal man whose marking trait is that he abandons people he finds important quickly and without explanation. It strains any level of credulity to imagine that Jamie could travel over a thousand miles with these odd assortment of people given that, regardless of what else he may be, he shows the signs of being seriously beaten.
Based only on that, I would have to say the novel has zero of value.
Taken as part of Mr. Rapp’s oeuvre, the book is worse. He creates a vernacular in The Copper Elephant that he follows throughout and is as wrenching as it is artful. 33 Snowfish has 3 narrators and each of them is obviously distinct from the others based only on their speech and the slang he uses for these characters seems to be authentic and contemporaneous. Even in the remainder of his young adult novels, the narrator seems solidly in his place and time—my reason for not praising the other novels so highly is due to the subject matter; the characters/narrators of these other novels are of similar strength as those in the brilliant works.
Jamie is hollow, stock. I neither like nor dislike him since he is without substance. I found myself in the position of visualizing Mr. Rapp at the keyboard just hammering out sentence after sentence and dislike him for bothering to do it.
Now, based on the current entirety of Mr. Rapp’s career, Punkzilla has even less value. I thought that Chuck Palahniuk’s Snuff would remain the worst novel I ever finished. It has now been supplanted.
The review is complete; what follows is some general thoughts on Adam Rapp’s career as I currently understand it.
I found out about Mr. Rapp based on a short article in the New York Times that was actually covering an experimental play running at that time (it was 2003 I believe). As a side note they mentioned that he had written novels for children including one that was a space-aged story involving child slavery. It wasn’t April 1, so realized it wasn’t a joke and decided to see what I could find.
In what has to be a rip in the fabric of reality, the public library system in Birmingham AL, had everything Mr. Rapp had published to that date. The Copper Elephant was the novel they summed up. The narrator for that book that left me crying more than once is a 13 year-old orphan saved from a labor deathcamp by a man whose job was to build coffins for the company using children in such a way. In the course of this novel, there is rape, murder, exploitation, and every single bodily fluid—without exception, period. In 33 Snowfish he created 3 narrators: one whose narrative is just a series of very dark sketches, a girl with the clap, and a tween boy whose experiences include things like escaping a house where he was likely the next victim in a kiddie porn snuff film. The stories in this novel left me sobbing which was and remains surprising.
What!!!!!. Why would anyone write that stuff, let alone read it?
I ask myself that every time I read his material or books of a similar level of maturity that would be shocking—though no one is on a par with Mr. Rapp. What makes me read his material, primarily his young adult material (but even his terrible novel for adults The Year of Endless Sorrows(a misnamed book if there ever was one), and his borderline plays) is that his ability to create such desperate characters facing the unimaginable but doing so with a simple strength and hard-won pragmatism, even wisdom well beyond their years. Whensday and Turl and Boobie are so well created that they are uncomfortably real. His ability to use a language that appears to be unique to each one makes them more significant and their emotional impact ringing.
Why all of his young adult novels written after the first (The Missing Piano a novel I just haven’t yet found a way into) involve what I call “under the radar” people is beyond me. All I can say is that as a reader, whether an intended audience member or not, I am happy that he has. I had the same reaction to him I did when I first understood Faulkner and found Richard Powers and William Vollmann. In all cases, there was something “new” at least to me that wasn’t just new but new and good. The reason that Punkzilla has left me so empty is that it is the latest indication that he can’t even match the artistry of earlier works without regards to possible improvements.