Study Guide

Punkzilla Analysis

By Adam Rapp

  • Tone

    Bleak and Ominous

    Adam Rapp isn't exactly known for writing about happy baby unicorns dancing in fields of candy, although we would totally Shmoop a book about that. Instead, his narrators are often miserable folks on misbegotten journeys—we're just waiting for Jamie to get snatched by a serial killer on every page of Punkzilla. Allow us to suggest that you keep a bucket of candy (or unicorns) within reach as you read.

    Here's an example of Punkzilla's vibe:

    […] Branson got crazy and slapped him again and said "I'm not your f***ing son b****!" and the man went red in the face and just stared at him and then Branson turned and walked away and later when we were going over to the Roxy to meet up with Fat Larkin I asked him why he did that and Branson said "Punk-ass needed to be taught a lesson and then I asked him what lesson and he was like "A life lesson son!" (3.7)

    Not exactly sunshine and roses, right? Branson is angry, and the tone does nothing to redeem this or make it more comfortable for readers.

    Here's another example, just a couple of paragraphs later:

    He told me to call him when I got to Memphis which is weird because he doesn't have a cell phone and there wasn't a phone in our room at Washington House just a payphone in the hall that hardly ever worked. I promised him I would call him but I know deep down that I may never see him again. I better go because I feel like I'm going to be sick. (3.9)

    And so it goes. You can practically feel the despair oozing out of the pages. After you eat your bucket of candy (or play with your bucket of unicorns), you'll probably find yourself wanting to take a long, hot shower with an astringent after-bath splash.

  • Genre

    Young Adult; Coming of Age

    Punkzilla has a big silver P on the cover, and it doesn't stand for Peter (unlike the rest of the Ps in the book). It means you're reading a Printz Honor book, which means you're reading YA. The Printz is this big, fancy award you get if you write one of the five best YA novels of the year. (No pressure, writers.) So when you see one, well, you know what genre turf you're hanging out in.

    And it doesn't get much more coming-of-age than a book in which the teenage narrator who sets out on his own to cross the country and loses his virginity in the process. As grown-up things go, sex is one of the biggies. We've got a lot of other firsts here, too: first road trip, first roommate, first death of a loved one, and unfortunately, first time doing meth. Jamie leaves Buckner and does a whole lot of growing up, and fast. The sex part? Awesome. The death and meth? Not so much. But so it goes with growing-up—it's a mixed bag.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Punkzilla isn't just the book's title, it's also Jamie's nickname. He tells us:

    Somehow Fat Larkin knew about my musical taste probably because I was always talking about punk rock. He even started calling me Punkzilla which everyone in Portland called me too. (1.25)

    Jamie is an androgynous name, and Jamie's not a fan of being androgynous; Punkzilla is way more butch. Sometimes he just goes by Zilla—this is how he signs his letter to Albertina—which underlines the fact that his nickname is a shout-out to one of the most legendary monsters of all time, Godzilla. Yeah, so tough.

    The title then, refers to Jamie as well as who he wants to be—and is—in the world. After all, dude definitely loves punk music, even if he's softer than he wishes the world recognized.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The last chapter of Punkzilla is Jamie's first letter to P, the one that set his journey in motion; it's dated December 2, 2007. Jamie writes to tell P that he's gone AWOL from Buckner and is now living in Portland. At first he says he doesn't want to give P his address, but he really wants P to write back, so he writes the address on the inside of the envelope.

    This is the letter to which P responds in Chapter 4, telling Jamie he's dying and including enough money for the Greyhound bus ticket. In the last paragraph, Jamie wishes P and Jorge a merry Christmas and asks if they still have their cat, Carlos.

    In going full circle like this—in visiting the moment that launches the whole book we've just read—we're reminded just how big a loss P's death presents for Jamie. Sad face.

  • Setting

    A Road Trip

    Punkzilla's a blur of highways and seedy hotels, but the general setting is the road between Portland and Memphis, with flashbacks to Cincinnati (Jamie's hometown) and Missouri (home of Buckner, the military school to which his parents send him.) After going AWOL from Buckner, Jamie gets a lift to Kansas, then to Oregon. After leaving Oregon, he makes it to Idaho on the Greyhound before the bus leaves him behind, at which point he hitchhikes through Wyoming, Nebraska, and Illinois before finally getting back on the Greyhound and making it to Memphis.

    Welcome to America, Shmoopers. That this story hops from state to state not only suits the plot well, but also adds to the feeling of uncertainty we feel as we follow Jamie around. He's a kid without a home, and so the book lacks one, too.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    When you first start reading Punkzilla, you might find yourself wondering why you shouldn't just read the Twitter feed of some wannabe gangsta who objectifies women and uses mad as an adjective a lot. Jamie's letters to P are so full of slang and run-on sentences that they just might leave you brimming with gratitude for P's ability to use a comma correctly when he writes back.

    But Punkzilla is to young adult literature what Jackson Pollock is to fine art—it seems like something anyone could do, until you realize just how well-crafted (if not well-punctuated) it is.

    In short, come for the compulsively readable narrative; stay for the outsider poetry.

  • Writing Style

    I Like Run-On Sentences But How Do You Guys Feel About Them No Really

    Jamie refers to himself as a "grammar bandit," and boy, is he ever. Here, have a sample sentence:

    We stopped at a Motel 6 way on the west side of Missouri like near the border in this town called Joplin and when we checked in to the motel the man at the front desk asked Alan Skymer if I was his son and Alan Skymer said "Nephew" and patted me on the head and I played along and called him Uncle. (5.4)

    The only way you're getting through that sentence in one breath is if you breathe in deeply first. Like, super deeply. Here's another example:

    Then Sam's mom looked at me in the rearview mirror again and asked me if anyone had touched me inappropriately and I shook my head and then she asked me if I got into a fight with my boyfriend and I shook my head again and then she asked me if I was absolutely sure that I didn't want to call anyone. (8.46)

    Commas? What commas? Punctuation is for suckers… or fourteen-year-olds who are in school instead of hitching their way around the country. And because of this, the writing style really helps us appreciate how young Jamie is. His letters stand in stark contrast to those of the people who write him, all of whom are older and more settled than our main man.

  • iPods

    Jamie wouldn't be nicknamed Punkzilla if it weren't for the iPod, and he wouldn't have an iPod if it weren't for Fat Larkin, for whom he stole "about fifty" of them. Fat Larkin paid him twenty bucks for every iPod he stole, which is how Jamie survived in Portland. He tells us:

    My iPod victims never even saw me because I would sneak up behind them and hit them in the back of the head with this heavy alarm clock that I took when I ran away from Buckner. […] It's metal with the Buckner Military Academy seal on it and mad sharp edges so a good thump would put down even the most obese person pretty easy. (1.20)

    The fact that Jamie's both a thief and an assailant is one of the first things we learn about him, since iPods are the currency with which he pays the rent on his crappy room at Washington House. He explains:

    Once I knocked out this tall woman with huge veiny hands and when I was disconnecting her iPod I saw she was wearing a medical chain around her neck that said she was a diabetic. I felt bad but I don't think she died or anything because they would have put it in the paper. (1.21)

    To Jamie, even the weak and infirm are disposable if they're attached to Apple products. We might be tempted to think of him as hopelessly hardened if we didn't get to see his excitement when Fat Larkin actually lets him keep some of the spoils:

    The iPod he gave me has eighty gigs and a color video screen and here's the good part. There was a ton of mad slamming punk rock loaded on that iPod like Dropkick Murphys and the Dead Kennedys and the Clash and Minor Threat. P I know a lot of that scene happened way before I was born but I still relate to it thanks to your rock-n-roll teachings. (1.25)

    That's when we remember: Oh yeah, our narrator is fourteen. Suddenly we stop thinking he's just a jerk and start wanting to know what happened to him to make him turn out this way, to land him in this position of having to fend for himself. Sure, Jamie's a felon, but he's also a kid trying to figure out how to survive and who he is. He says:

    Somehow Fat Larkin knew about my musical taste probably because I was always talking about punk rock. He even started calling me Punkzilla which everyone in Portland called me too. (1.25)

    An iPod full of someone else's music—in this case, someone whose taste matched P's—is a lifeline for Jamie. It's a key to a sense of self. He doesn't choose punk; it chooses him. It doesn't matter if someone else suffered a traumatic brain injury so he could have access to the Clash; what matters is that he has access to the Clash. And as anyone who's ever been on a long bus trip knows, your tunes get you through.

    Except that by the time Jamie hits the road to Memphis, he has no tunes. Check it:

    Man I wish I had that iPod Fat Larkin gave me. I wound up giving it to Branson. He's the guy I did meth with last night. He was my best friend in Portland and the one I will miss the most. (1.12)

    Uh, oops.

    See, here's the deal: Jamie's a criminal, yes, but he's also just a kid looking for a friend. When someone shows him some compassion—as Branson does when he offers Jamie a place to stay—Jamie gives his whole entire self in gratitude. That's what was on that iPod: the closest thing he had to a true self. By putting the iPod in Branson's hands (after taking it out of someone else's and putting it in Fat Larkin's and getting it back, of course), Jamie's practically giving away his soul.

    Is it misguided? Absolutely—but all fourteen-year-olds are misguided from time to time. Part of what the iPod reminds us of, then, is both how young and how well intentioned Jamie is. After all, just because you beat people over the head with alarm clocks doesn't mean you can't feel hope or show love.

  • The Mask

    Jamie wears a lot of figurative masks in Punkzilla. Most people think he's a girl, and he doesn't always correct them (case in point: Sam's mom); he tells Will (the sketchy/not-sketchy photographer) that his name is Cesar; and he dyes his hair black to look more punk. But the strangest mask Jamie dons by far is a literal one—it's a rubber Keanu Reeves head.

    The mask comes to him courtesy of the backpack he steals from Sam, the eight-year-old kid he meets in the Idaho Greyhound station. After getting jumped and left behind by the bus, Jamie gets a ride from Sam's mom. However, when she thinks he's a girl and asks him if he's pregnant, instead of setting the record straight, Jamie seizes the opportunity to jump out of the car at a gas station stop. He grabs Sam's backpack from the front seat, heads off into a cornfield, and rummages through its contents.

    There was some other weird stuff in the book bag that I have to tell you about P and this is what I found it was a rubber Halloween mask […] I'm almost positive the rubber Halloween mask is supposed to be Keanu Reeves who was that guy from The Matrix. (8.73)

    Hey there, creepy Keanu. Anyway, having had the worst day of his life, Jamie hides in an abandoned car, puts the mask on and says:

    The rearview mirror had been ripped off so there was no real way I could see what I looked like with the mask on but that was sort of an awesome feeling like I wasn't ANYONE for a second like I could be ANYTHING under the mask like a ghost or a wolf boy with a dead bird in my pocket or some green mist. (8.75)

    Being Jamie Wyckoff is really hard, and being Neo—even a weird rubber-head version—is way better. Jamie's done a lot of stuff he's not proud of, and it's landed him in a terrible, dangerous situation. The mask makes him feel like he "gained special powers or […] like [he] became something else for a moment" (8.76). The mask, then, offers a bit of escape, even if it's only momentary. And since Jamie relishes it, it also lets readers know how badly this kid could use a break.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central)

    Any time a narrator tells a story as I, you're dealing with first person narration. Jamie's not just narrating, though; he's writing letters in which he blurts it all out to his brother P. This is a kid with no filter whatsoever, and we're eavesdropping on his missives to P from the road. For example:

    My boner was bigger than ever P. I mean I have no idea what it was in terms of inches but in my mind it was huge. (19.117)

    Um, yeah… It doesn't get much more first-person than telling your brother (and therefore your reader) about your erections. Jamie, like plenty of fourteen-year-old boys, is obsessed with sex, and he lays it all out (no pun intended).

    Not enough sexy sex sex in that first excerpt to convince you that Jamie's a sharer when it comes to details? Okay, you asked for it:

    […] I asked her if she was bleeding and she said "No I'm fine" which meant that maybe she wasn't a virgin which I have to admit hurt a little but I didn't let it get to me too much. (19.121)

    Punkzilla's narrator is telling us deeply intimate stuff about his life and his body. Reading his words feels like not only hearing his story, but having him whisper it in your ear—and if you're a teenage girl, he'd probably be more than happy to do just that.

  • Plot Analysis


    Ridin' the Dog

    Jamie—that's Punkzilla to you—has just boarded a Greyhound bus in Portland, Oregon, and he's on his way to Memphis. The bus is, well, the bus, complete with the usual cast of down-on-their-luck characters. (Seriously, what's up with that lady carrying an Easter basket like a purse?) Jamie's brother P is dying of cancer, and even the fact that Jamie's coming down from his first meth run won't stop him from going to Memphis to say goodbye. He didn't eat anything before he left, so he's looking forward to a rest stop in Idaho where he can get a snack.

    Rising Action

    Budweiser as Weaponry

    Idaho at last. Time for Jamie to grab some food, use the bathroom, and be on his way, right? Uh, wrong. He's in the men's room doing his thing when some guys come up behind him, bash him over the head with a Budweiser bottle, and steal all his stuff. When he comes to, he realizes that all he has left are his notebook and the sixteen bucks he stashed in his sock. As for the bus, it's long gone. His only choice is to start hitching.


    In Which Climax is Literal

    After bumming rides halfway across the country, Jamie meets up with a guy named Kent, who drives him through Illinois. Kent seems super cool at first, and he has a hot teenage daughter named Albertina. When Kent leaves Jamie and Albertina alone in a hotel room one night, they lose their virginity to each other, and the next morning, Jamie wakes up alone. Kent and Albertina have vanished, leaving Jamie not only newly stranded, but heartbroken over the loss of his first love. (Yeah, he falls fast.)

    Falling Action

    Ridin' the Dog, Redux

    Fortunately, before meeting up with Kent, Jamie earned a hundred bucks by posing for a photographer with somewhat dubious qualifications. He uses the money he made to take a cab to the Greyhound station in Joliet, buys another bus ticket, and gets back on Interstate 55 headed for Memphis. He just hopes it's not too late to say goodbye to P.


    Go Ahead, Haunt Me

    It's too late. P's already unconscious when Jamie arrives in Tennessee, and he dies shortly thereafter. Jamie can't go back home to Cincinnati, and he definitely can't go back to military school in Missouri, so he decides to take P's partner, Jorge, up on his offer to move in. At first he thinks it might be weird to sleep in the room in which P died, but he realizes it would actually be comforting to be haunted by his brother. After all, P was the only sane family member he ever had.

  • Allusions

    Literary and Philosophical References

    Pop Culture References

    • Fifty Cent (1.7)
    • Quentin Tarantino (1.14)
    • Robert De Niro (1.14)
    • Taxi Driver (1.14)
    • Mean Streets (1.14)
    • Star Wars (1.16)
    • The Five Deadly Venoms (1.22)
    • C-Rayz Walz (1.23)
    • Madlib (1.23)
    • Dropkick Murphys (1.25)
    • Dead Kennedys (1.25)
    • The Clash (1.25)
    • Minor Threat (1.25)
    • Vin Diesel (1.48)
    • John Stamos (4.17)
    • Elton John (5.4)
    • George Michael (5.4)
    • The Ramones (5.15)
    • Liars (5.16)
    • Deerhoof (5.16)
    • Daniel Johnston (5.16)
    • Oprah (5.51)
    • Montel Williams (5.51)
    • Jerry Springer (5.51)
    • Shrek (5.62)
    • Johnny Cash (5.66)
    • Cypress Hill (5.94)
    • American Gangster (6.5)
    • Denzel Washington (6.5)
    • Pearl Harbor (6.7)
    • Kate Beckinsale (6.7)
    • The Terminator (8.25)
    • Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (8.25)
    • Cold Fear (8.26)
    • Resident Evil 4 (8.27)
    • Super Monkey Ball Deluxe (8.28)
    • Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 (8.28)
    • Keanu Reeves, The Matrix (8.72)
    • Bruce Springsteen (12.3)
    • Fleetwood Mac (12.3)
    • Pink Floyd (12.3)
    • Brad Pitt (12.14)
    • Leonardo DiCaprio (12.14)
    • LL Cool J (12.14)
    • Oliver (12.30)
    • Scarlett Johansson (12.37)
    • The Prestige (12.37)
    • Usher (12.37)
    • Johnny Depp (12.37)
    • Hootie and the Blowfish (15.35)
    • Counting Crows (15.35)
    • Jay Leno (16.5)
    • Ben Affleck (16.5)
    • The Rolling Stones, "Gimme Shelter" (19.18)
    • The Beatles (19.18)
    • Vivienne Westwood (19.55)
    • PJ Harvey, Dry and Uh Huh Her (19.87, 19.100)
    • The Sopranos (19.102)
    • Kurt Cobain (21.20)
    • Jimi Hendrix (21.20)
    • Janis Joplin (21.20)
    • Nick Drake (21.20)
    • Lou Reed (21.22)