The Punk Ethic
The Punk Ethic (copyright 2012)
Landmines, dictionaries, punk rock, high school, depression… The Punk Ethic is the ultimate love story. And not that crappy kind of love story that people toss out there to make money without having to say something about the human condition. Anyway, this illustrated novel is the story of Martin Henry and how he goes about surviving a single month of life in the prison of suburbia amid frenemies, uninspiring educational nonsense, boring everyday crap and precious moments of the Sublime.
*And as a spoiler to those who foolishly think that the world would be a better place if we lived in their nostalgic and fictional idea of what America must have been like in the 1950’s… this story contains cussin’ and fightin’ and referencin’ to sexual situations. Got issues with that, take it up with Timothy Decker’s mother, she liked the book… though not all the cussin’.
Enjoy the trailer for The Punk Ethic.
Teenager Martin Henry has two things going for him: his snarky sense of humor and his guitar skills. Otherwise, his mother is broke, and he spends most of his social life exchanging sarcastic remarks with his Dumpster-diving friend, Jeff. When a comment from his English teacher prompts Martin to turn his desire to change the world into a reality, he decides to throw a benefit concert to sponsor the removal of old landmines. Now, all he has to do is secure the venue, book the bands, and take care of 100 other details. Meanwhile, there’s school to drift through, his post-graduation future to look toward, and an ever-changing relationship with his complex punk rock friend Holly to figure out. Though Decker’s (The Letter Home) narrative scope is modest, he nails Martin’s conflicted, passionate, frustrated voice through dialogue and interior monologues. As Martin navigates his desire to be mindful in an often confusing and apathetic world, readers can almost hear the music. Quirky illustrations bring a gritty graphic element to this realistic coming-of-age story about learning who you are by doing what you love.
A month in the life of a blunt, cynical punk-rock guitarist.
Readers meet Martin through a combination of contemplative black-and-white illustrations, episodic first-person narration, italicized internal monologues and excerpted school papers. Through Martin’s eyes, they also meet best friend Jeff, whose relationship with Martin seems based on mutual antagonism, and photographer and fellow musician Holly, who lets Martin use her computer to do homework. There’s no real hook to the plot, but there is motion: After Martin’s English teacher responds to his paper on landmines with a Theodore Roosevelt quotation (“Do what you can, where you are, with what you have”), Martin assembles, promotes and finally emcees a benefit concert. Meanwhile, romantic tension and misunderstandings build between Martin and Holly. Each narrative segment is dated, and every day from April 2 to April 30 is covered, contributing to the episodic, haphazard feel. Incidents and dialogue sometimes move the story forward and sometimes don’t (a concert-going girl’s insistence that Martin wear a Band-Aid on his ring finger, for instance, is never explained to Martin or to readers). A revelation at the end is heavier than the rest of the story but not completely out of place.
Funny and unusually freeform, but then, maybe rigid narrative structure is for losers.
The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books:
Martin’s a one-man hardcore rock band with a practiced disaffection that, as a sophomore, he’s not actually cynical enough to pull off. When his English teacher reads his essay on landmines and challenges him to actually do something to change the problems he sees in the world, Martin is inspired. Unfortunately, every world-changing plot he can think of—including organizing a benefit concert, which is what he settles on doing—requires resources he doesn’t have, not least of which is cash. As Martin corrals a misfit bunch of mostly terrible bands, he also tries to figure out his hot-and-cold relationship with his old friend Holly, a punky artist with hidden issues. Martin’s sharply, smartly funny in a way that’s completely in harmony with his relative immaturity and deadpan, long-suffering personality, and readers will get a kick out of his small moments of humorous pushback against the monotony of school and the fake-antagonistic exchanges with his best friend Jeff that stretch the bounds of good taste. Short chapters divide the story into day-by-day doses, each one introduced with a full-page pen-and-ink illustration that captures the mood of the day. This is feel-good fare with an edge; it will inspire kids to change the world, starting with what they can realistically do from their own small corner of it, while reassuring them that they can still be sarcastic screw-ups while they do it. Hand it to kids with an interest in DIY rock bands, social justice, or their own above-it-all personality.
Martin Henry is a young rocker disillusioned with the songs available, and with life in general. He is dancing around a romance with Holly, who used to go out with one of his bandmates, but she is keeping him at arm’s length, which makes him crabby. All he wants is something that is not a waste of time, and he finds it when he decides to put on a benefit concert to remove a landmine in a poor country. It brings in a mix of musicians from his high school, including King BF, the closest thing to a professional musician at school; a group of Christian ska performers and Holly’s own band.
Decker deliberately does not fall into the trap of making this an inspiring, feel-good story about a ragtag bunch of misfits who put on a show for the greater good. If anything, he takes steps to avoid such a setup (Martin rages against songs that are stories, even composing an essay about preferring to read dictionaries over fiction). There are still some of the common YA tropes, but Decker eschews cutesy and gritty for something subdued and more realistic. The result is a mixed bag—the landmine issue fails to really register—but it comes together for an ending that is most notable for its quiet grace.