Small Town Punk
by John L. Sheppard
Writers Club Press / iUniverse
I distinctly remember that the main reason I requested a promotional copy of John L. Sheppard’s Small Town Punk was that the publicity information I received made me think of Sean Carswell’s excellent novel Drinks For the Little Guy, transplanted to a West Central Florida setting. Drinks takes place in my current home of Melbourne, FL, but I grew up in Tampa, and spent plenty of time in Small Town‘s primary setting, Sarasota. Despite my interest, though, I didn’t expect to find something as good as what I got.
Small Town Punk is brutal, honest, funny, and acerbic. It’s also (save for one fairly major geographical inconsistency) pretty dead-on accurate about what life in Central Florida for disaffected, low-to-middle class outcast teens was like. While Sheppard has about seven years on me, things didn’t change all that much from the time of the semi-autobiographical book (set in 1982) to the teen years I spent stomping around the area, and Sheppard has captured it in harrowing detail.
Of course, this made it very easy to identify with his characters, especially the book’s protagonist, “Buzz” Pepper. If Buzz doesn’t remind you of a low-income, modern day Holden Caulfield, you haven’t read Catcher in the Rye. Despite the updated setting and financial differences (Holden’s family had money; Buzz’s family is near dirt-poor), disaffected teens — and those of us who once were disaffected teens — should identify as closely with Buzz as they have with Holden. It’s a lofty comparison, to be sure, and I’m by no means saying that Small Town Punk is the timeless classic that Salinger’s best-known work is, but the similarities are undeniable.
That said, Small Town Punk in no way feels like a rehash or a rip off of Catcher — it has its own compelling story to tell. The story can be bleak — even the characters know how bad things are — but it’s absorbing and enthralling nonetheless. Part of this comes from Buzz’s acerbic sense of humor, of course, but it’s also about getting to know these characters and their daily way of life. Rather than getting absorbed in a simplistic plot, the story flows in a more stream-of-consciousness fashion, ala Jack Kerouac, and you get to know the characters — especially Buzz — as real people rather than as figures set up to drive the plot.
For me, that made the book compelling enough that I finished it in one night, after picking it up planning to just read a chapter or two before bed. That hasn’t happened to me since Alex Robinson’s brilliant graphic novel, Box Office Poison, and I’d put Small Town Punk in the same ballpark with that great book (and in fact, fans of the one may appreciate the other). Others might feel that there’s not enough plot and that the book is about some Seinfeldian “nothing.” Those people have missed the point.
Again, I’m throwing around a lot of lofty praise here, and I don’t want to falsely inflate people’s expectations of the book. But if you were ever one of the “outcasts,” if you didn’t fit in with the preppy overlords of your high school, or if you grew up poor and punk, this is a book you should really enjoy. And if you happened to do all that in West Central Florida, Small Town Punk is absolutely essential.