An impressionable youth of the 1990s loved Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing. It looked and read differently than most of the other books that he owned. The irony of buying an indie punk book in his suburban Barnes & Noble didn’t escape him, but he still enjoyed the book just the same. Fast forward fifteen years of world travel, NPO work, and growing up. A chance reintroduction at a Half-Price Books reunited said youth and said book, and a glorious reunion was had by all. Sometimes an old book becomes a new book.
ToaPRN, as far as I can tell, was originally published in 1998 by Abram Shalom Himelestein and Jamie Schweser. It’s the story of a Jewish teenager from small-town Tennessee named Elliot. Elliot didn’t want to just live a “normal” American life (WAKE UP, SHEEPLE), and instead decided to move to Washington, D.C. to become a punk and change America. He moved into a co-op full of punks, starts a zine called “Mindcleaner” and did his best to navigate his way through a movement/revolution/middle school-level social drama. Rather than using traditional narrative, the book relies on letters to and from Elliot, zines, and journal entries. If you play close attention to the zines and the journals, sometimes a different understanding of the narrative emerges. It’s well done.
As a high schooler, I don’t remember any of the negatives of punk registering with me as I read the book. By negatives, I mean the inherent drama, judginess, and ego of any social movement (really, of any group of people). I only remember being in awe of Tales’ group of misfits who took on apathy, greed, injustice, crappy corporate music, and The Man in general. Today, as a grown man, I am still inspired and energized by idealism and optimism that social change is possible. I’ve also learned, through making my way through several non-profits, that sometimes well-intentioned projects end up hurting more than helping. This can be due to ego, incompetence, lack of understanding and context, or a nasty strew of all three. But, obstacles shouldn’t lead to inaction, right? Right?!?
Much to my surprise, on a reread a decade and a half later, this book subtley (maybe not subtley) takes on common problems of social movements. Elliot is well-intentioned and does his best, but is met with different attitudes within his own group depending on how his band is doing, who he is dating, whether he decided to eat traditional Jewish foods that contain butter, etc. Maybe he does have blindspots in his own behavior and ideas. (Maybe we’re all a little right and a little wrong.) He wonders if moving to an underserved part of D.C. really helps anyone at all, or just helps to gentrify the neighborhood. My favorite passage sums up the anxiety of trying to figure out if your life and intentions matter at all:
Good meal. Good conversation. Still didn’t sit well. Hard to enjoy food after watching the cops kick someone. Does it make me better than the rest of America, who actively don’t care, if it ruins my digestion for a while? Kate said about her job and it seemed even truer after what we saw, “People act a little better if they think that other people are watching them.” What if they figure out that we’ll watch forever (to salve our conscience) and never do anything (don’t want to get hurt ourselves). What if we only watch?
So, what’s the answer? What do we do in a messed up world? What is our role? I think the authors’ answer is buried within the first few pages of the book. read the whole thing and then reread that first twenty pages. I’m happy with where they landed.