John Sheppard's Small Town Punk was originally a self-published book offered through iUniverse, but even though it reportedly sold a respectable 2,000 copies in that format, it has now been republished by Ig Publishing. That a book as well-written and conceived as this one would only find a home with a "real" publisher through so circuitous a route says everything about the current clueless state of publishing in the United States. Small Town Punk is easily as "readable" as any of the story-driven fare that dominates American publishing, and it surpasses most "literary fiction" pumped out by those same publishers in the quality of its prose, the intelligence of its approach, and the soundness of its aesthetic execution.
Which is not to say it is particularly original, either in its form or, especially, in the characters and milieu it portrays. The "punk" of the title is literally one of those natives of the first punk rock generation of the late 1970s/early 1980s, as are his few friends in the "small town" of Sarasota. Florida. The novel depicts a few months in the life of the 17-year-old protagonist as he awaits graduation from high school, works part-time at Pizza Hut, and anticipates (or doesn't) whatever comes next. The episodes related are etched out in a relatively vivid way in this character's first-person account, but ultimately Small Town Punk is a portrayal of "alienated youth" of a kind that has become rather common in contemporary American (and British) fiction. In this case the novel attempts to show us "how it was" in the early Reagan era rather than posing as a sociological expose of present-day Kids In Crisis, but its status as an historical novel of sorts really only deadens its emotional effect. In some ways this is an asset to the book, since it reinforces the sense that for many young people like "Buzz" Pepper this was an emotionally dead time, but for me the alienated youth theme only seems all the more conventionalized and predictable when it's cast as the foundation of an historical re-creation, a glimpse of a previous era's teenage wasteland.
On the other hand, Small Town Punk mostly avoids melodrama, and Buzz Pepper's narration provides it with a compelling voice that raises it above a mere historical survey and allows the novel to avoid the more egregious uses of "psychological realism," which in this kind of historical narrative would no doubt become just a way of prying out "information" about how such characters percieved their situation. Although to describe Small Town Punk as either a "novel" or a "narrative" actually fails to precisely identify its formal/structural characteristics. I found the book most interesting as a kind of "in-between" work, not quite a novel if one's definition of the form requires a traceable story arc, but also not exactly a collection of stories if one expects each episode to be itself a self-contained work capable of standing alone, apart from the larger whole to which it also contributes. A few of the "stories" in Small Town Punk would stand well enough on their own, might even provide a useful condensation of the book's strategies and concerns, but ultimately they seem to be conceived as parts of a whole. They are as likely to move sideways as forward, adding to the novel's generally plotless plot through accretion, a layering effect, rather than becoming dramatic points to be marked off on Freytag's Triangle. There's plenty of "action" to be found in each of the episodes--the sort one could anticipate from titles like "Wasted" and "Hot Cars"--but it's not the kind of action to which other pleasures, pleasures of voice, character, and setting, are required to be subsumed.
Perhaps it is the lack of obvious drama, of "high concept" or the exciting "hook," that accounts for the publishing history of Small Town Punk. Perhaps not even the smaller or more adventurous presses saw much in the way of sales from a book that shows no inclination to bend to the existing commercial winds and that takes "realism" seriously as the attempt to render life as the accumulation of non-events and ordinary frustrations it sometimes (often?) turns out to be. The novel has a mildly optimistic conclusion:
I turned 18, the age of majority. One more semester, and I'd be rid of the whole lot of them. Masturbatory thoughts of the day I'd walk out the door spun in my head.
I applied to the University of Florida, and was accepted. I would put two hundred miles between them and me. Two-fucking-hundred miles.
Until then, I closed the door of my room every afternoon and blasted my music as loud as I could. Then I went to work.
But the feeling evoked in the novel is one of limited opportunity enveloped in an atmosphere of swamp-like gloom. That the novel pulls this off while remaining a more or less "entertaining" read is to me a mark of its accomplishment, and that publishers (before Ig) would stay away from it despite its manifest stylistic and formal virtues hints to me that other similarly skilled works of fiction are being written and duly shunned by our aesthetically-challenged "book business."