On a bus from Portland, Oregon, to Memphis, Tennessee, is a 14-year-old boy all alone. Jamie, known to most recent acquaintances as “Punkzilla,” is on his way to see his older brother, Peter. Peter, or P, is just 27 and dying of cancer, and Jamie is hoping to make it to him in time. Jamie's journey is a complicated one; he is AWOL from a military academy having been sent there by his parents after getting into a series of disruptive and criminal troubles. He has spent the past five months living on the streets of Portland, stealing, living in a sleazy motel, and smoking and drinking. On the night before he left to see P, he did methamphetamine for the first time.
In PUNKZILLA, the latest from Adam Rapp, we read about Jamie, his journey, the family he is fleeing and the brother he is trying to reach. Told in a series of letters to, but mostly from, Jamie, we learn why he was sent to Buckner military school, why he ran away from it but didn't go back to his parents in Ohio, and why P is also estranged from the rest of the family.
Jamie's letters to P are all written in the notebook he carries with him. Though he is broke and with few possessions, even mugged and robbed, he hangs on to the notebook, keeping the letters with him at all times. More like a diary, Jamie doesn't plan on sending the letters to P, but hopes to get to Memphis in time to share all his adventures, trials, dreams and ideas with the brother who has inspired him and loved him unconditionally. Jamie's letters are raw and often brutal in their content: drug use, violence, abuse, teenage sex, strong language. Jamie holds nothing back. He shares his fears about his sexuality (he is concerned by the slow pace of puberty and angry that he is sometimes mistaken for a girl, but he is pretty sure he is not gay), his hatred for his abusive militaristic father and passive mother, his love of music, his dependence on prescribed medications, and his longing to understand P, his gay, punk rock, playwright brother who has found a community that accepts and nurtures him.
Jamie is not a genius and doesn't think of himself as special. Despite his tough family life, he is ultimately responsible for his deeds. Rapp doesn't quite let him off the hook (though almost), but does show him to be an extraordinarily sensitive and creative young man. Jamie's odyssey is filled with peril, some imagined but most horribly real. There are predators and creeps, and they often hurt him. But there are transformative encounters with people who impart wisdom or intellectual and emotional challenges only to disappear from his life again. As dark as things get for Jamie, he is starting to see that there is much love, goodness, beauty and art all around him.
Quite bleak yet sometimes funny, PUNKZILLA is a road-trip narrative, coming-of-age story, classical heroic adventure and social commentary all rolled into one. It is heartbreaking, depressing, scary, compelling, poetic and quite entertaining. Battered, bruised and hurt, yet still hopeful and decent, Jamie is an unforgettable character in a powerful book.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on October 18, 2011
- Publication Date: May 12, 2009
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 256 pages
- Publisher: Candlewick
- ISBN-10: 0763630314
- ISBN-13: 9780763630317