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BOOK REVIEW

Tapping the power of punk

I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone A Novel Stephanie Kuehnert MTV Books: 340 pp., $13 paper

July 03, 2008|Erik Himmelsbach | Special to The Times

After 50 years, rock 'n' roll still maintains a messianic hold on a great many of us: It makes us move, shapes our identities, infects our souls. We hand ourselves over to it, drawing upon its melodic force to push us past life's dead ends. Those three-minute bursts of music can serve as our tickets out of the Nowheresvilles of our formative years, giving us the confidence to move forward and embrace the great unknown.

Stephanie Kuehnert found her own personal Jesus in the early 1990s. "The first time I heard Courtney Love scream that she was 'pretty on the inside,' it saved my angry, thirteen-year-old girl soul," the author explains in the foreword to her jagged-edged debut novel, "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone." Kuehnert, 28, grew up in the era of Nirvana and Riot Grrrls, a time when punk "broke" after more than a dozen years of bubbling under the cultural radar. Suffice to say, there's no groovin' on a Sunday afternoon on these pages.

In "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" (named after the 1996 track by female punk trio Sleater-Kinney), Kuehnert taps the energy of punk to fuel her blunt prose. It's an empowering new twist on a girl's coming of age, replete with the true-to-life struggle of commercial hand-wringing versus angsty art.

The author clearly understands the pitch-black flip side of rock's transformative power. The music can save you, but it can just as easily break your heart, or much, much worse. At first, Emily Black is just another angry small-town teen raised on rock: "Music was in my blood," she declares by way of introduction. It was a bloodline she shared with both parents, who met at River's Edge, a warehouse on the outskirts of Carlisle, Wis. Dad was onstage with a guitar; Mom was in the crowd. However, soon after Emily's birth, her mother, Louisa, flies the coop, leaving Emily to be raised by her father, Michael. The reason Louisa leaves? To follow the music, according to Dad. "She had smiled at us and kissed us good-bye and said it was time to meet Iggy and Joey and Patti," Emily says.

An ugly truth

But the truth, we learn, is far less romantic: While still in high school, Louisa was raped by her boyfriend, whom she shot and killed in self-defense. Though no one suspected her guilt in the killing, Louisa was tormented by her actions.

Despite her love for her husband and daughter, she fled her family, feeling unworthy of her idyllic life. "I thought the music would heal me because that was the only time I felt okay," Louisa believes. But as time passed, the emotional wounds remained raw. Louisa drifted from town to town, disconnected not only from her former life, but also from the music itself. Living hand to mouth as a waitress and stripper, Louisa relied on drink and drugs to get her through each day.

Emily too found herself hanging out at River's Edge. At first, it was enough to bed the local talent, but by 15, she needed to get on the stage herself. "I stared up at the girl who fronted the band, rocking out in knee-high black leather boots and a badass, leopard-print skirt, and I knew that was what I wanted to do." On her 16th birthday, Michael gave his daughter his cherished 1969 Fender Mustang, and the circle of life was complete: Emily would be in a band. Music engulfed her soul: But the absence of her mother began to haunt Emily as she crept toward adulthood and success as a musician.

Saved for the music

Kuehnert paints Emily in broad strokes, almost to the point of predictability: She's a sassy small-town punk everychick, the sexy, surly girl who has yet to come to terms with her soft side, largely because she's afraid to see what she might learn about herself and her mother.

Instead, she saves her emotions for the music. Emily becomes a formidable musician, the darling of the local scene before moving to Chicago, where she gets into a twisted relationship with a creepy fellow musician -- whom she gives the nom de punk Johnny Threat. He's less about the music than the money and fame. As their relationship turns toxic, she strays from music and begins to fixate on her mother. But as Emily becomes consumed by emotion, so does the story. Kuehnert makes the moments too big -- like a rock star slamming an overwrought power chord -- and "Joey Ramone" sputters dangerously into melodrama. Think "A Star Is Born" with leather jackets.

Punk on the page

There's a bit of a high-horse righteousness at work, but, then again, you can argue that this sort of posturing is merely the transference of the punk ethos to the page. After all, no one ever accused punk of subtlety.

It's hard to complain too much, though. Kuehnert closes out "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" like a poignant ballad -- with more soul than you'd expect, given the story's jagged trajectory. As a fictive artifact of an aggressive, didactic genre in which shades of gray are often obliterated by black and white beats of rage, Kuehnert emerges as a true subversive -- retaining her cred while expanding the form.

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Erik Himmelsbach is a Los Angeles writer and producer. He is working on a documentary about the cult of "The Big Lebowski."

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