Punkzilla: A Postmodern Teen.

Rapp, Adam. Punkzilla. Somerville: Candlewick Press, 2009.

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punkzilla.jpgJamie, a fourteen nearly fifteen year old boy nicknamed "Punkzilla" because of his tenacious love for punk-rock, has recently gone AWOL from Buckner Military Academy in Portland, Oregon. In a letter -- one amongst many he carries with him -- his brother Peter (P for short), a homosexual playwright in Memphis, Tennessee, informs Jamie he is dying of cancer. With the holding that Jamie is in danger of losing the only family member that understands him, he embarks on a journey while documenting his experiences in letters to P. Through several precarious situations and strange characters Punkzilla writes honestly, perhaps for the first time in his life, about his pride, his understanding of sex and gender, the loss of his virginity, love, his views on his upbringing by his mom and the Major, and so on and so forth. In his melancholy cynicism, Jamie is realistically depicted as a troubled teen, yes, but more than that. Though he seems to not care much about anything or anyone, we see that in the carrying of several letters from his family and friends he, in fact, does and deeply.

The internal wars Jamie wages speak specifically to the loss of identity that happens around his age, which is amplified by his reaction to his overbearing father, his perfect brother Edward and the fear he sees in his mom. There is no doubt that his poor decision making costs him, but I do not believe that Rapp is seeking to break Jamie of his drug using, his stealing, or his sexual explorations. Yes, horrible things happen to this character, but Punkzilla takes it somewhat in stride.

Is Punkzilla representative of all teens?

This book is life as a troubled fourteen year old through the eyes of a troubled fourteen year old. There seems to be no adult agenda written between the lines and Adam Rapp deserves a lot of credit for this. As Punkzilla says after finally reaching Memphis only to find his brother comatose and passing, "...I can't believe how shitty this world is." P never wakes up. Punkzilla never gets his conversation with his brother which is poetic specifically in that it is a conversation he needed to have with himself. Could a teen reading this book be in need of a similar experience? Could this book provide the "every-teen" with something worthwhile? Maybe. This book is wrought with adult language, sexual situations including hand-jobs, blow-jobs, pedophilia, homosexual sex, heterosexual sex, it plays with gender switching both in Punkzilla's confusion about himself and in a female character named Lewis who is halfway through the surgeries necessary to become a man. These are also combined with the cynical, angry, hopeless melancholy of Jamie who starts off high on meth and ends high on medical marijuana. There is something to pull out of this story, yes, but for who? The shock value of a book like this would be misunderstood by several teens and, perhaps, the over-the-top descriptions of bad behavior would be glorified by others.

This begs the question: Could this story be told differently, without the shock, and hold the same powerful realism? No. It is as if this is a book about teens for adults. A diary, of sorts, that lets us into this troubled teens mind. How readily would you like to let teens into other troubled teens minds? Probably not without some type of conversation first, at least. If it was Rapp's intention to represent all teens through his character of Jamie, which it is not -- as it has an air of being almost autobiographical -- then the book fails to identify with or represent the spectrum of teens living today; however, there are probably more than a few "punkzillas" out there and a story like this, written in this manner, may speak to them in ways nothing else could.

Furthermore, and lastly, the technicalities of the writing are very interesting. It is an epistolary novel in which the letters written by Punkzilla are stream-of-consciousness. The author seems to have perfected this type of writing, using a combination of extremely dark, bleak language and incredible humor and sarcasm. If one is able to get past the adult elements, the read itself is very enjoyable; but again, would a fourteen or fifteen year old reading this pick up on some of the humor? Maybe, some; not all, but some.

Concluding, Punkzilla is not every teen and his story is not for every teen; however, with a proper conversation before and after its reading, there are several valuable, teachable moments present in this book.

Recommendations for Teachers

The main character in Punkzilla, Jamie, is fourteen years old, yet the content of the book seems almost adult in nature. As college age students, we blushed at some more vulgar parts of the book. The question is raised, if college students are put off by some of the content, then would Punkzilla be appropriate to be taught in a secondary classroom?

Of course, it all comes down to the teacher, and her personal philosophy on education and what materials should be given to students. As a group we decided the book, Punkzilla, would be inappropriate to teach in a classroom setting, but could be handed to certain students on a case by case basis. In today’s society, teenagers are typically ready for a book of this caliber, although parents and school districts may not be willing to accept this fact. Punkzilla covers a wide variety of mature topics such as: drinking, drugs, smoking, sex, prostitution, and violence. We decided that the only way we would recommend this book is to a student for personal, independent reading given that the student is having specific troubles which may be helped by this book. Also, that student, would need to be very mature, and understand the underlying issues and morale behind the words. Jamie, the main character in Punkzilla, swears constantly, describes a hand job from a prostitute, gives vivid descriptions of hitting runners over their head to steal ipods, and, if all that was not enough, tells the story of a boy who sticks pencils in a cat’s anus. Although the content of this book is vulgar, its first-person narrative in the form of a journal allow the reader to enter into the mind of this troubled teen. With a grain (or container) of salt, this book may help illuminate pressing issues in a troubled teen’s life.

About Adam Rapp

In 1973, Adam Rapp’s parents decided to divorce. Adam was five years old at the time and his mother decided she would raise Adam and his brother Anthony herself. After graduating from high school, Adam attended Clarke College and then completed a two year playwriting fellowship at the Julliard School of Drama in NYC.
Rapp became most widely famous with his plays. In a review of Rapp’s play, Red Light Winter (2005), NY Times columnist Charles Isherwood praises Rapp’s “exploring a wider range of human emotion and writing with a new sensitivity to match his natural gift for crackling, hyperarticulate dialogue.” This enigmatic style of writing can be seen in all of his work from regular contributions to the TV series, The L Word, to numerous YA novels. Rapp recently released his new graphic novel, Ball Peen Hammer, and is planning on releasing another graphic novel in the near future.
The biggest draw to Rapp’s works is his often quirky, vulgar, and flawed characters. In his play Essential Self Defense, Rapp introduces the reader to a punk rocker librarian, a human test dummy for a self defense class, and the cleaver-wielding Klieg the Butcher, among others. The plot concerning Rapp’s off-centered characters is never linear and the endings are never tidy. Often Rapp introduces elements which disrupt the reader’s preconceptions about the characters. Although these disruptions have been labeled as nothing but “shock value,” Rapp seems to be interested in challenging a reader’s comfort and breaking up the rhythm of the novel with these expletives. Overall, Rapp’s work attempts to undermine social, intellectual, and emotional structures by making the unusual and extreme elements of life become usual and ordinary.
In addition to writing, Rapp rocks out with his alternative/punk/indie band Less.

More information on Adam Rapp can be found on IMDB and in various NY Times articles.

Adam Rapp's Plays

The trailer for Winter Passing, a film written and directed by Adam Rapp, gives insight to the kinds of characters Rapp writes about on screen, on stage, and on paper. “Sometimes the people you need the most are the ones who you know the least.”

A scene from Rapp’s Winter Passing. “Sometimes the hardest journey you can take is the one that takes you home.”

The Unofficial Soundtrack to Punkzilla.
Music plays an important role in the book. Jamie's love of punk helps him define himself and solidifies his connection to his older brother P. Jamie calls his music his "support system" and lists several specific titles throughout the book that act like a sort of soundtrack to his adventure. Through music, we get a glimpse of Jamie's emotions. Below are songs from artists that are mentioned in the book with the page they are mentioned.

Jamie hides in the basement to get away from the Major yelling at him. He explains that he "took like three Actifed and listened to the Dead Kennedys on your iPod" pg 23
Dead Kennedys: Kill the Poor.

"Before I gave Branson my iPod there were two bands called Liars and Deerhoof I couldn't stop listening to." pg 49
Liars: It all fit when I was a kid.

Deerhoof: The Perfect Me

"There's also this guy called Daniel Johnston who is schizophrenic and wrote all these songs with Fisher Price instruments. His songs are pretty sad and weird. I played [Walking the Cow] for Branson once and now he thinks I communicate with the dead." pg 50
Daniel Johnston: Walking the Cow.

"I asked her if she liked PJ Harvey and she said that she liked her old stuff mostly...then I took her PJ Harvey shirt off and her bra too even though it was hard to undo." pg. 227
PJ Harvey: This is Love

"Twenty seven years is not many but Jorje pointed out that's how old Kurt Cobain was when he died and the other guy Nick Drake who Jorje said you were really getting into before you died. Jorje said he would burn me a CD of his stuff." pg 239

Nick Drake: Day is Done

Additional Resources:

Punkzilla is a relatively recent book and there is not much information or resources to accompany the book. Our discussions on the book often centered on whether it was appropriate to use a book with explicit content like Punkzilla and what functions it can serve for our students. The following resources provide both rationale for using controversial materials as well as words of caution from teachers who caused controversy over their book choices.
  • Teachable Moment : An outline of a range of strategies for managing controversial issues in the classroom.
  • For Your Consideration : This article explains what function controversial books can serve in teaching as well as issues to consider before using a controversial text.
  • Lesson Plan : A lesson plan to guide your students in debate over what books they should read in school and whether schools should ban books with explicit content.
  • Case Studies of Mr. Tierce and Ms. Heermann who both face suspensions for teaching a Pulitzer prize winner and the Freedom Writers Diary, respectively. In both cases, the books were part of the school library, highlighting the difference in standards between what students read on their own and what they read in the classroom, despite having an adult as a guide through the text.
  • A high school in Pennsylvania banning Adam Rapp’s The Buffalo Tree for its explicit content and graphic scenes illustrates the culture war between the younger generation of readers and parents.
  • Adam Rapp compares his experiences in working for the stage and for the silver screenas well as his success as a writer and having one of his young adult novels banned.
  • An interview with Adam Rapp gives some insight to his world as a playwright and as a writer.
  • Adam Rapp shares how music influences his writing, both of his plays and his novels. He elaborates on how he wrote Punkzilla and his feelings about writing for young adults.
  • A reviewof Rapp’s movie Winter Passing shares some characteristics with his young adult novel Punkzilla. The ending may be dark, but it shows a character on a journey like the trip Jamie embarks on.
  • A second review of Rapp’s first film Winter Passing and a brief interview with Adam Rapp about how he came to direct his own screenplay.
  • Adam Rapp’s play “Finer Noble Gases” is described as having a writer with “energy and [the] tastefulness of a punk rock band,” making the play dark and subterranean.
  • Rapp comments on the “emotional autobiographical” elements that influence his writing style and the genre in which he typically engages.
  • An awardAdam Rapp received.
  • A chartof Adam Rapp's plays and involvement as well as awards.

--Dan Slane, Mike Coon, Katelyn Wood, Brett Blohm and Sara Kiel (see also Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game and Ann Marie Fleming's The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam)