Study Guide

Punkzilla Themes

By Adam Rapp

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    When Punkzilla opens, fourteen-year-old Jamie is on a Greyhound bus coming down from doing meth with his buddy Branson. He's not an addict, but he is living a seriously dangerous life—part of the reason his parents sent him away to military school was his penchant for pot, and he's got no problem smoking with people he meets on the road. When he meets Albertina, who uses medical marijuana for her lupus, the line between harmful and helpful becomes questionable—but either way, Jamie never turns down a free blaze.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. Does Jamie have a drug problem, or is his experimentation normal teen behavior? How can you tell?
    2. Is it wrong for adults to smoke and drink in front of Jamie? Is it wrong for Lewis to share marijuana with him when he has a breakdown over P's cancer?
    3. If prescription amphetamines help Jamie focus, why does he have such a bad reaction to meth?
    4. Would Jamie have become an addict if he'd stayed in Portland? Will the stability of living with Jorge prevent him from becoming one in Memphis?

    Chew on This

    For Jamie, weed is the first way he tries to escape this life.

    Trying to enforce strict rules on your kids (like the Major does) often has the opposite effect. Jamie might not have started doing drugs and stealing if his dad hadn't been such a nightmare.

  • Appearances

    To say Jamie lacks an editor is an understatement. He has no problem calling girls skeezers, breasts titties, or transgender guys she-men. He doesn't do it to be offensive; he just can't be bothered with political correctness. What he sees, he says, and if you can get past the teen-boy obnoxiousness, he's actually pretty good at describing people. And hey, when you're hitchhiking and sleeping in sketchy trucker motels, you're probably going to bump into some interesting looking characters. Jamie's just calling it like he sees it in Punkzilla.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Does Jamie call women skeezers (including calling Scarlett Johansson a "Hollywood skeezer") because he disrespects them, or is he just repeating slang?
    2. Why doesn't Lewis kick Jamie out of his room when Jamie consistently uses offensive language to describe Lewis's body? What does Jamie do and say that lets Lewis know his heart's in the right place?
    3. Do you have to look a certain way to be punk? Why do people think they have to change their appearance to reflect the music they like?

    Chew on This

    Jamie's offensive and politically incorrect because he hasn't been taught not to be. After all, the Major is his dad.

    Jamie thinks being crass about other people makes him punk, but really it just keeps them at arm's length.

  • Sex

    Time for a shocking revelation: Fourteen-year-old boys spend a lot of time thinking about sex. We know, you're stunned. At the beginning of Punkzilla, Jamie's still trying to figure out the meaning of "put my testicles on your breasticles," but at the end—which is, mind you, just a few months later—he's losing his virginity in a motel room. It's a rapid sexual awakening, for sure, but it's also an emotional one. Jamie's prepubescent humor gives way to the belief that he's in love with a girl he just met. Both are misguided, but one's a much more adult kind of misguided.

    Questions About Sex

    1. Is it really possible to love someone you just met, even (or especially) if you had sex with them?
    2. Jamie has lots of curiosity about various sex acts, and he's obviously very close to P, but he never asks P about gay sex. Why not?
    3. How is Jamie able to trust the other adults with whom he travels after his experience with Alan Skymer?
    4. Does Kent suspect that Jamie's going to fool around with his daughter as soon as he leaves the motel room? If so, why does he leave?

    Chew on This

    Jamie would think he loved the first girl he had sex with, no matter who she was. Lots of teenagers think that (and some adults, too).

    Jamie takes advantage of Buck Tooth Jenny, and Alan Skymer takes advantage of Jamie. It's worse when an adult does it to a kid, but just because Jamie's paying doesn't mean it's not exploitation.

  • Gender

    It's safe to say Jamie has a lot of issues in Punkzilla, but one of the biggest is the fact that people are always mistaking him for a girl. He's a late bloomer, and he worries constantly about the fact that he's fourteen and puberty still hasn't hit—plus, people often think he's a lesbian, which seriously embarrasses him. But out of everyone Jamie meets on the road, it's a transgender man named Lewis who shows him the least shade. Jamie's introduction to gender dysphoria comes with a side order of compassion—not that that makes him any happier about his own looks.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Does Lewis help Jamie come to any realizations about his own ambiguous gender? Does Jamie see any parallels in himself and Lewis? Why or why not?
    2. Why doesn't Jamie correct Sam and Sam's mother when they assume he's a girl? Would they have given him a ride if they knew he was a boy?
    3. Why doesn't Albertina assume Jamie is a girl, or address the fact that he looks like one?
    4. How could being mistaken for a girl help you survive as a homeless boy? How could it endanger you?

    Chew on This

    Jamie runs from Sam's mom's car because he doesn't want to get to their house and have them realize he's a boy.

    Even though Jamie never says it, his gender ambiguity might be one of the reasons the Major sent him to military school, and one of the reasons the officers picked on him.

  • Mortality

    Without mortality, Punkzilla would have no story. This is a road trip novel, yes, but what sets the road trip in motion is Jamie's desire to see his brother P one last time before P dies of cancer. The question is how long Jamie himself would have survived the life he was living before hitting the road—crashing in a sketchy flophouse, doing meth, and stealing is its own death sentence. And let's be honest: We're all waiting for Jamie to meet up with a serial killer on the road. So thank goodness for P's partner, Jorge, who agrees to take Jamie in when he finally makes it to Memphis. Like, for real.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Which of the people Jamie meets on the road poses the greatest threat to his life? Was there a point at which you expected one of them to kill him?
    2. We don't know about you, but we spent the whole book waiting for Jamie to meet up with a serial killer. Why does Rapp choose not to put the narrator in a situation in which his life is directly threatened?
    3. Why doesn't P's mom go to be with him when she finds out he's dying?

    Chew on This

    If it weren't for P's death, Jamie never would have found a safe home.

    All Jamie's actions between Buckner and Memphis are flirtations with death.

  • Criminality

    Jamie might not be robbing banks or hiding bodies, but he's definitely on the road to a felony since a sketchy dude named Fat Larkin pays him and Branson twenty bucks a pop to knock out joggers and steal their iPods.

    Punkzilla raises some important questions about what makes someone a criminal. If your home life is intolerable, and military school is intolerable, and you run away at fourteen, what are you supposed to do to support yourself? You can't even get a job, because you're not old enough. Unfortunately, the readily available options are stealing, panhandling, and sex work, as we see from Jamie and his Portland crew. They've got to eat, after all.

    Questions About Criminality

    1. Why is it okay with Branson if Buck Tooth Jenny does sex work, but not if she poses online? After all, she'd make more money online.
    2. Will Jamie stop stealing in Memphis? Will living with Jorge get him on the straight and narrow? Why does Jamie steal Sam's backpack?
    3. Why doesn't Jamie feel guilty when he knocks someone out to get their iPod?

    Chew on This

    Extraordinary circumstances (for example, homelessness) lead ordinary people to commit crimes.

    The Major acts far more terribly than Jamie ever does.

  • Contrasting Regions

    Here's what Punkzilla has to teach us about the Midwest, at least as seen through Jamie's eyes: It's boring. Sure, there are all those state fairs where you can eat fried things on a stick, but road-tripping across Middle America means staring out the window at a whole lot of corn. As Jamie travels from Portland to Memphis, he learns that what's interesting about a place—for better or for worse—is its people. Who ends up where is a matter of circumstance and coincidence; sometimes you find the most interesting characters in the most mundane places.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions

    1. Would Jamie have gotten to P in time to say goodbye if he'd stayed on the Greyhound?
    2. What's up with P's phone? Why doesn't Jorge contact Greyhound when Jamie doesn't arrive? Do you think he does, and Jamie just doesn't know about it?
    3. Why does Jamie choose Portland when he leaves Buckner? How does he get there? Do you wish Rapp had told us, or is it irrelevant to the narrative?

    Chew on This

    Jamie grows up in the Midwest, moves to the West Coast, and travels back through the Midwest to end up in the South. The only part of the country not represented in Punkzilla is the East Coast. (Of course, it's all North to Branson—whose name is, incidentally, a town in Missouri.)

    Jamie's hustling skills allow him to survive on the road. A more sheltered kid might not have survived the trip—but then again, they probably wouldn't have taken it in the first place.

  • Family

    Oof, the Major. Where do we even start? In Punkzilla, Jamie's dad is a horror show, and his three sons go in radically different directions. P becomes a left-wing gay playwright in Memphis; Jamie becomes a pot-smoking teenage runaway; and Edward sticks around in Cincinnati being exactly who his parents want him to be. Each response has its pros and cons, but one thing's for sure: Jamie and P aren't willing to stick around and watch their dad abuse their mom. However, as Jamie learns when he hits the road, there's all kinds of messed-up families can be (cough, Kent and Marty).

    Questions About Family

    1. Do Jamie and P call their father the Major rather than Dad out of sarcasm, or because he asked them to?
    2. Is it possible to apply military principles to raising your kids, or is that strategy always destined to fail?
    3. What does Jamie need from his parents that he doesn't get? How does P fill that void?

    Chew on This

    Jamie's punk identity is an extension of his relationship with P, a way in which P has helped make Jamie who he is in a major way.

    Jamie and Branson support themselves by pretending to represent April Yon, a kid who, like them, is missing, but who, unlike them, has a concerned family.