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JONATHAN KESSLER - OCTOBER 2000 FEATURE  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival
An abundance of riches in the hinterlands of New Jersey.  TCR's own Ginger Murchison and Julie Larios report.

David Lehman and Maria Claire Leng
Companion Poems: Odes that Rhyme from A - Z.

Joseph Stanton
The Space-Time Continuum and The Slow Eye of Stan The Man: Baseball, apple pie, and Stan "The Man" Musial.

John Kinsella
The Globe Hotel: The next chapter in his exclusive autobiographical series.

Jonathan Kessler
Book Review: Michael Rothenberg's "Punk Rockwell," a book that transgresses boundaries.

Jonathan Kessler

Jonathan Kessler is currently attending the MFA Program for Fiction at Sarah Lawrence College where he is working on a collection of short stories. He lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.  This is his first publication online.
"Punk Rockwell" by Michael Rothenberg

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Punk Rockwell
by Mich
ael Rothenberg
May, 2000, Paper. 185 pp. 
Tropical Press, Inc. 
$19.95

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 hero—in this novel, at least—means 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 dangerous—this 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 responsible—his 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 succeeded.

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2002 The Cortland Review