There are a couple of book that I read and subsequently threw away in disgust which other readers often cite as uniquely brilliant. One is A Confederacy of Dunces which is an affront to humanity and not funny at all; another is Catcher In the Rye.
Without going into a deep analysis of why Salinger’s book sucks, I’ll just recognize that in general, girls find it stupid and boys tend to run it up the flagpole as they march into awkward adolescence. I emphasize girls and boys here because no one over the age of fourteen should ever be caught reading Catcher In the Rye.
But this is not to say that every juvenile coming-of-age novel is dreck (although most are). I believe that it takes a special skill to write good juvenile literature. Today they are several warnings that signify dreck: Does it pertain to zombies or vampires? Does the adult author have a strong message to suffocate the youthful sense of wonder and adventure? Does it appear to promise far too much to the reader? Is the author hip to the argot briefly used thirty years ago in Nebraska? Is Fabio on the cover?
I don’t as a rule troll the Juvenile aisles at the Library for quick reads with lots of pictures but sometimes I find a title that intrigues me and I take it along for a relaxing interlude. This week it was a book by a well-known Juvenile author, Adam Rapp, titled Punkzilla. First, if you’re wondering, the title character’s nom-de-street is Punkzilla but it really isn’t germane to the novel. He could have been called Holden Caulfield for all it mattered. Punkzilla is a coming-of-age story and a road-trip story and a rebelling against society story and a thematic narrative which questions contemporary reality and also confronts contemporary problems. But simply put, it is the story of a young boy who runs away from military school and then goes on a trek from Portland (Oregon) to Memphis to see his older brother who is dying of AIDS. Along the way he has episodes involving being mugged in the Bus Station bathroom, getting rides from suspicious people, getting rides from nice, generous people, finding a boy that used to be a girl and was saving up for a dick, finding scary perverts, friendly truck drivers, a photographer who will pay $100 for photos and he isn’t a pervert at all, people who give him money, people who steal his money, people who think he’s a girl, people who buy him new clothes and get him a haircut, and more.
The author keeps his narrative simple and straight-forward but he doesn’t pull any punches. The narrative technique used in Punkzilla is the letter: an Epistolary novel? . I suppose you can think of a letter as the object correlative of stream-of-consciouness. The hero writes letter after letter in his spiral notebook and, through the magic of fiction, reveals the contents of letters he may or may not have ever received from his friends, his family, his dying brother.
I would imagine this novel was well received by the Juvenile readers: it’s not Henry James but it does a more than adequate job of maintaining the age level while at the same time being interesting and relevant. It’s not going to make my 100 Best list but I’m glad I read it before I died.