Friday, May 22, 2009

Punkzilla by Adam Rapp

Jamie was stealing iPods for Fat Larkin by hitting joggers over the head with a pointy alarm clock. ("I mostly went for mom types or fat people because they were the easiest to knock unconscious. I'm still small for my age.") Fat Larkin rewarded Jamie with a nice one: color, 80GB, and--most importantly--loaded with a bunch of punk rock, like Dropkick Murphys, the Dead Kennedys, and Minor Threat. Fat Larkin somehow knew that Jamie was into punk, started calling him "Punkzilla," and pretty soon everyone in Portland was calling him that, too.

Fourteen-year-old Punkzilla/Zilla/Jamie has found himself in some tenuous circumstances, after running away from military school, going off medication for his ADD, ending up in Portland ("PORTLAND, OREGON, NOT PORTLAND, MAINE"), falling in with the likes of Fat Larkin, trying meth for his first time, and finally, hastily, boarding a Greyhound bus when he finds out that his older brother in Memphis is dying.

Punkzilla--the book, and to some extent the character--is a little hard core, recommended for ages 14 and up. It's a collection of letters, mostly from Zilla to his brother, but also a few written back to him. Steer clear if you're uncomfortable reading about some intermittent (but never gratuitous) sex, drugs, and violence. ("I've gotten off here and there but I'm basically talking about hand jobs. I don't mean to be weird P but in your letter you said how you wanted the truth about stuff even if it's ugly and trust me it's going to get a little ugly. Uglier than my skittery penmanship if skittery is even a word.")

But despite the grittiness, Punkzilla still manages to be awfully funny at times, and always real and raw and surprisingly hopeful, as young Zilla navigates some pretty bewildering situations--some of them specific to the sketchiness of being a runaway on the road, and some faced by every restive boy on the brink of becoming a man.

The book was written by Adam Rapp, one of NYC's most exciting younger playwrights, so it's not too surprising that the character Zilla is so believable and appealing. Rapp's gift for drama is also clearly what makes the book itself such a page-turner, with the backstory revealed out of order, in bits and pieces from the letters in Zilla's worn spiral notebook.

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