by Michael Rothenberg
May, 2000, Paper. 185 pp.
Tropical Press, Inc.
Transgressing boundaries seems to be the overriding theme in Michael Rothenberg's first
novel: boundaries between friendship and marriage, boundaries between countries,
boundaries protecting and defining personality and identity, even boundaries of genre and
plot are violated.
Punk Rockwell, a freelance renegade jack-of-all-trades, "A detective. A
consultant. A shaman," drinks tequila at 9AM, beds women on beaches and boats, even
in beds. Oozing masculinity, he is a loyal slave acting out all of his lustful, risky, and
decadent impulses, a hired killer, supposedly even a novelist. Busy guy. According to
Jeffrey Dagovich (the narrator), Punk "took life like an enema and came back for
more." Now that's a hero, and being the heroin this novel, at leastmeans
finding the "caviar" originally sent as a gift for the American President by
Stokov, a Russian government official. The shipment has supposedly been stolen en route by
terrorists and poisoned.
Jeffrey Dagovich is not the kind of person you'd expect to be telling the story of a
character the caliber of Punk Rockwell: "This poet takes conversation for an act,
thinking his creative action, talking his creation," Jeffrey concedes. "Doing is
dangerousthis poet's body is fragile." Mr. Dagovich, however, didn't anticipate
telling it either. While tripping on mushrooms in the Sierra Nevada forest, the
vacationing Jeffrey and Emily, his wife of 15 years, are mysteriously befriended by Punk
Rockwell. To Jeffrey, Rockwell is an enigma, a powerful whirlwind of a man who magnifies
Jeffrey's own inferiority and threatens the already-worn bonds of his marriage. As Jeffrey
puts it: "he has his own code of ethics. I couldn't say what it was, though."
Punk becomes more than a friend to Emily, and they consummate their lust on a fishing trip
in the everglades.
Jeffrey, an environmentalist and self-described poet, is physically and emotionally
unequipped to acknowledge the fact that his wife and new friend are sleeping together in
the next room. "I had to say something but I couldn't," Jeffrey says,
"because it would have been out of character for me." One keeps in mind here
that Michael Rothenberg also describes himself as an environmentalist and a poet.
The characters in Punk Rockwell seem more than willing to stretch their limits as
characters, acting on impulse without restraint. The convoluted plot unfolds in scenic
fragments, leaving Jeffrey lost in attempts to understand and come to grips with what has
transpired. After sleeping with Punk, Emily leaves Jeffrey and moves to Brainard,
California, to be closer to her new lover. Jeffrey discovers, however, that Emily isn't
Punk's only diversion. He eavesdrops on Rockwell wrapped in the arms of Angelina, whom we
later discover not only has old ties with Fidel Castro, but she is also married to Stokov,
the Russian government official who gave Punk his assignment. During his work with Dorov
to prevent the extinction of a rare breed of dove, Jeffrey discovers that Dorov is also
somehow involved with the stolen caviar. In an attempt to help her husband, Angelina goes
to meet Dorov, is kidnapped and raped, and Jeffrey, characteristically in the wrong place
at the wrong time, is held hostage and beaten.
A bold narrative device is at work: as the novel continues to crisscross borders and
boundaries, the double-spaces between paragraphs indicate the recuperating Jeffrey's
semi-conscious state and faulty memory, distancing the reader, a narrative device both
daring and playful.
Somewhere along the way, torn between hate and hero worship, Jeffrey identifies with
Punk: "I needed a shield, a disguise to understand my passion and frustration as it
mutated into violence," and Jeffrey writes the novel as a way to meld into Punk.
"It was an experiment, understanding myself through someone else. You can't know
anyone else's heart. You can imagine them, you can make them up in your head, what you
think they think or do." Writing the novel is not even Jeffrey's idea, and he has to
use Punk's method as novelist to tell his story, but with no one at the desk to challenge
him, writing is easy revenge.
While Rothenberg's treatment of Angelina and Stokov's marriage is poignant and
heartfelt, other subsidiary characters are hardly given enough stage time to earn
familiarity and believability. The caviar-flavored international politico-environmental
espionage background story is almost too preposterous to take seriously, and Jeffrey's
penchant for excessive poetic physical description distracts the flow; the word
"salt," for instance, appears 17 times on page 165. That said, Rothenberg is
definitely in his element when describing the musical-chair intricacies of love and lust.
The novel is more about the attachments and repulsions of these characters in this crisis
than it is about the crisis.
Wondering if Punk Rockwell even exists, I was reminded of Conrad's The
Secret Sharer and the much later film, Fight
Club. It is possible that Jeffrey created Punk out of powerful and fearful
elements within himself that he is unwilling to own. Jeffrey not only fails to confront
Punk for sleeping with Emily, he even feels somewhat responsiblehis passivity has
allowed the affair to take place. He may even be somewhat relieved. In choosing to write a
novel about Rockwell, Jeffrey (and Mr. Rothenberg) create a compelling and paradoxically
safe arena in which to variously honor, emulate, and indict him.
Jeffrey is harshly self-deprecating regarding his life, his principles, his art, and
his marriage. "I could get ready for a big erection and only find myself holding
myself, wondering why I began this novel in the first place." Jeffrey, who wears his
emotions on his sleeve, sometimes seems truly inspired and enjoys writing this story, yet
he sometimes seems to be wishing he could give up. It is obviously a difficult story for
him to tell.
He can never be like Punk and act out his impulses without questioning. "I never
liked to be controlled, I never wanted to control anyone." At times, it seems as if
this novel is a revenge fantasy. Other times, it seems like an homage. Fundamentally,
however, this novel is about a man's attempt to understand his life, and through the
writing of this novel, Jeffrey undergoes his transformation. And Rothenberg? Novelists are
manipulators, troublemakers. Throughout the entire book, Jeffrey reacts passively and
helplessly to things going on around him. He's unwilling to own the power he's finally
realized in himself. "Rockwell carved a scar in my imagination that would keep me
turning stones and deadwood," Jeffrey says, "until I became the snake I was
looking for." If that was Rothenberg's aim for this novel, he has certainly