It seems impossible to have a bad book combining 1980s punk culture with a backdrop of Philadelphia and the surrounding river towns, but sadly, Richard Cucarese’s debut novel is just that. The synopsis of PUNKS promises us a glimpse into the life of punk guitarist Gemma Stinson as she rises victorious above her roughshod upbringing to make her mark on the city’s blooming punk scene. But we’re instead subjected to nearly 300 pages of tedious dialogue and unnecessary exposition that boil the punk ethos down to colorful hair and nonsensical screaming at innocent passersby.
The greatest act of rebellion
PUNKS is incredibly light on plot, which is an odd choice for a purported love letter to Philly in 1985. The city was still reeling from the MOVE bombing, Live Aid was making history, Levittown steelworkers were having their American dreams ripped out from under them by Reagan’s policies, and Cucarese’s fictional heroine is overcoming drug addiction and homelessness. Yet for some reason, the main character is Rob Cavelli, Gemma’s suburbanite boyfriend, who has an axe to grind against his own comparative privilege. Rob is the worst stereotype of punks, a kid out of his depth who talks a big game, but whose greatest act of rebellion is twisting his hair into Liberty spikes.
It wouldn’t be so bad if any of the characters, including Rob, had even a shred of personality or a definitive story arc, but absolutely everyone exists in this story to simper about their own and each other’s alleged greatness in between rock shows and tedious speeches against The Man. Cucarese does particular disservice to his female characters, whose primary purpose seems to be being hotter than the “preps” and “norms” surrounding them, and to remind the reader that Rob is also hot, although they and the POC and queer characters occasionally go off on tangents to laud Rob about how not sexist, racist, or homophobic he is.
All the ingredients
PUNKS is not so much a novel as it is a Who’s Who—or more accurately, a Where’s Where—of venues, restaurants, and stores in Philly and the surrounding suburbs that might still be standing and were once beloved by groups of punk kids who lived in the area. The book makes the unfortunate mistake of assuming that the characters’ beliefs make them inherently interesting, and that anything that happens is a story worth telling. It’s clear from the author’s unfortunate tell-don’t-show style of writing that he has great affection for the period in his life that inspired the novel, but he doesn’t give the reader any reason to care about it.
The great tragedy of PUNKS is that it contains all the ingredients for a great story. Many seeds of the social ills currently ravaging the country were planted in the ‘80s, and the counterculture movements of the time were engaging in the kind of socialist philosophy and mutual aid that are key political points in 2020. The punk ethos of egalitarianism is something from which today's mainstream has strayed even further, even as activists tirelessly strive for it. But instead of this potentially rich ground, we get a disconnected series of events told in painful paragraphs of rambling dialogue indicating that the kids might be all right, but they are also annoying.
What, When, Where
PUNKS. By Richard Curarese. Washington, DC: Wordsmiths, Ink, December 13, 2019. 275 pages, paperback and eBook; $9.99. Get it here.