Adam Rapp, May 2009. Fourteen-year-old runaway Jamie, also known as Punkzilla, is on a trip across America, hoping to reach Memphis and his older brother P before P dies of cancer. P is gay, living with his long-term boyfriend, and Jamie’s total acceptance of this is key to his comfort with some of the characters he meets en route.
The cast is large, as Jamie is assisted by a long line of people: the elderly couple who give him a ride in the back of their car, the man starting up a photography studio who gives him $100 for an afternoon of modeling, the little boy obsessed with virtual realities, the trucker who plays horseshoes with him and buys him a hamburger. The book is told in a series of letters, mostly addressed to P; it’s unclear how many of these are actually mailed. The content of the letters describes Jamie’s life on the road, including detailed interactions with the people he meets on the Greyhound and while hitchhiking, but also delves into his fears and shames (not having any pubic hair and unwillingly passing as a girl are two of the big ones).
Rapp’s prior novel, 33 Snowfish, is the despairing tale of three kids fucked up beyond any hope. Punkzilla is refreshing: it takes a kid with a bleak outlook and shows him that most grown-ups are decent after all. Rapp resists the obvious trap of portraying Jamie’s road buddies as a string of rapists and exploiters, and instead makes them real people who want to help a lost teenage kid. He also avoids an unrealistically heartwarming tale; one dude does just want sex, and Jamie is beaten and robbed in a fast-food bathroom at one point.
By the end of the book, I was desperate to find out whether Jamie makes it to Memphis in time, turning the pages too fast and then making myself go back to see what I’d missed before I reached the end. One of the best books I’ve read this year. Stupid title, though.