I am, of course, a sucker for books related in any tangential way to punk rock. Seldom does one come across my desk as impactful and artistic (yeah, I said it) as John King’s Human Punk.
Joe Martin, the novel’s protagonist, is a rough-and-tumble teenager when Human Punk begins in 1977. He lives with his parents, hangs around with his friends, and picks cherries and works in pubs to finance his record buying and drinking. Between tube station dust-ups with boot boys he sees tons of bands play, including a SPOTS-era Sex Pistols gig. And there’s tons of speed to be snorted.
Joe and his friends copping lines serves as an important stylistic device throughout—the obvious connection first comes in King’s prose, which extends over three or four pages without punctuation on nights when Joe and his friends are speeding, drinking, and show-going.
Events at the end of part one set the tone for the book’s second and third acts. Part two shifts to 1988, as Joe takes the Trans-Siberian Express from Beijing West. As part one ends, Joe and his friend Smiles are thrown into a river by hooligans. Joe emerges physically unscathed, but Smiles—named this for his expression and attitude—doesn’t. The time underwater changes him, and the guilt Joe feels in not helping his friend drives him across the world, where he lives in squalor and drifts from job to job.
Throughout part two, its train travel and hookups and flashbacks and the run-on cadence so joyfully prevalent in part one becomes something of a curse: no matter how far Joe runs, he’s always stuck with and in himself. There’s no escape from the events that shaped him. King emphasizes this both through his character’s inner monologue and through the stylistic trick he establishes through his prose, which draws attention to itself in order to echo the good times gone awry.
By part three, Joe Martin has done something resembling settling down: he has a steady girlfriend, buys and sells used records for a living, and DJs clubs on the side. But Smiles is dead, the guilt remains, and the good nights are always just a few drinks away from becoming run-ons anew, reminding Joe—and us—of his inescapable past. Then (spoiler alert) a ghost appears and forces a reckoning.
Human Punk King weaves threads of punk rock throughout the narrative, both subtly and forcefully. As 1977 fades from view the working class attitude remains, as do references to bands, songwriters, musicians, friends. Punk rock is pulsing at the heart of this novel, but never intrudes on the story or announces itself for its own sake. PM Press has re-released this gem domestically on its fifteen-year anniversary. How I managed to miss it for so many years is beyond me. I’m grateful for the chance to read it. –Michael T. Fournier (PM Press, PO Box 23912, Oakland, CA94623)