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Adam ?)- Rapp (1968() - Sidelights

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Adam Rapp has written critically acclaimed novels for young adults that address tough issues of peer abuse and dysfunctional families. Reviews of Rapp's Missing the Piano and The Copper Elephant have commended the author for his ability to create believable characters whose triumphs over adversity are not easily won. "Rapp writes about naively innocent adolescents caught in violent and emotionally isolated places," stated Ann Angel in the ALAN Review. An accomplished playwright whose works have been produced by the prestigious American Repertory Theatre, Rapp is pleased that his novels seemed to have struck a chord with young readers. "I think kids are incredibly resilient and much smarter than we think they are," he told Angel in an ALAN Review interview. "I hate the idea of sheltering kids from challenging books. It's just another form of conservative fear that promotes ignorance more than anything else."


Rapp's own difficult childhood has served as the basis for much of his work. He grew up in Joliet, Illinois, and his family included an older sister and younger brother. Their mother supported them by working as a prison nurse, but his brother Anthony was a talented stage prodigy, even at an early age. At one point, Anthony was cast in a Broadway production of The Little Prince, so the family moved to the New York City borough of Staten Island. The stage project was abandoned by its producers, however, and the family found themselves stranded in a cheap rental unit that did not even have a refrigerator. It took two months for Rapp's mother to save up enough funds to get the family back to Illinois.


Later, Rapp's brother was cast in a national tour for a popular stage musical, and their mother arranged for Rapp to live with his father and stepmother while she accompanied Anthony on tour. The situation was unpleasant for Rapp, and he became involved in so much delinquent activity that he landed in a reform school; afterward, he was sent to a military academy in Wisconsin. "I was a troubled youth," Rapp admitted in an interview with American Theatre writer Karen Fricker. "There were a lot of problems." Despite the worries, Anthony's success was a bright spot in all their lives. "We had nothing," Rapp told Fricker, noting that even for the mother, living in hotel rooms on the road with her son was a unique experience. "There was nothing to look forward to. Joliet is a dismal, sad little town. Every time I go back there, there is this sense that I am never going to leave."

Reading became Rapp's salvation, he admitted to ALAN Review interviewer Angel. As a teen, he discovered the novels of J. D. Salinger, and Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, the classic novel of disenchanted youth, in particular. "I started making all of these great friends that I would have otherwise never met," he recalled of his favorite books. "I feel like I know [Catcher in the Rye narrator] Holden Caulfield better than many of the guys I played basketball with in college." For Rapp, athletics became a ticket out of Joliet. He earned a scholarship to play for Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa, where he took his first writing class and found his calling. "I knew right then that was what I wanted to do," he told Fricker. His early literary output also forged a more mature relationship with Anthony, who was still living at home. The two had fallen out, but Rapp began sharing his short stories with his little brother. "When I told him that I had started writing," Rapp recounted to the American Theatre interviewer, "he sent me some of his own stories—and that's how we started hanging out again."


At Clarke College, Rapp captained the basketball team and graduated with a degree in fiction writing. He then moved to New York City, where he could divide his time between his two passions: playing street basketball and writing. Anthony eventually moved there, too, finding early success on Broadway and in some feature-film roles. Between parts, he began directing off-Broadway plays, and Rapp began assisting him, which led to an attempt at writing for the stage. His play Ghosts in the Cottonwood was selected for the New Work Now! series of the prestigious New York Shakespeare Festival in 1996. Set in rural Appalachia, the play revolves around a tremendously dysfunctional family whose members are based in part on the family of one of Rapp's college friends. "They had beautiful music in their voices," Rapp recalled to Fricker in American Theatre. "I became obsessed by the way they said things and made up words—it was a strange form of poetry for me."


Living in New York, Rapp became an avid eavesdropper, which gave his imagination unlimited fodder, and much of his work has evolved from this habit. "It always starts with the voice," he told Angel. "I have never successfully written in the third person. If there's a rhythm or a musicality that interests me, I become obsessed with the character and just have this need to spend time with him or her. Sometimes I'll be in the park playing ball and I'll hear a kid say something that I've never heard before. Sometimes one word can set me off."

Rapp's next play, Trueblinka, won its creator two awards—a scholarship from the National Playwright's Conference and a Camargo Foundation to Cassis, France. The success also helped Ghosts in the Cottonwood, which went on to premier at Chicago's Victory Gardens and be produced in Los Angeles. Rapp has continued to pen works for the stage, including Nether-bones, Blackfrost, and Finer Noble Gases, all of which have enjoyed successful productions. However, it would be Rapp's first novel for young adults, Missing the Piano, that firmly launched his career as a writer. Published in 1994, Missing the Piano was named a "Best Book for Young Adults" and "Best Book for Reluctant Readers" by the American Library Association.

Missing the Piano is the story of Mike Tegroff, a talented basketball player whose life is disrupted when his younger sister is cast in Les Misérables. Since their mother must accompany her daughter on the road, Mike is sent to live with his father and stepmother, whom he detests. Once his mother and sister have departed, the stepmother refuses to shelter him, so his father takes him to a military academy. Mike finds the place more than just a harsh change from his normal teenage routine; it is a brutal, insulated world whose code of honor seems farcical. The older students beat and taunt the younger cadets, and racial prejudice is rampant. Mike's African-American roommate is the victim of cruel slurs, and after he is beaten by other students and expelled, Mike feels guilty for not coming to his rescue. Publishers Weekly called Missing the Piano a "promising but not entirely successful debut novel," faulting its conclusion but noted that "the main characters' voices are authentic and generally engaging." Booklist reviewer Stephanie Zvirin admitted that some passages were disturbing, but felt that "the novel's harsh language fits the intensity of the story, which Rapp successfully moderates with some flashes of irreverent humor and the actions of a caring teacher."

Rapp's second novel for young adults, The Buffalo Tree, was published in 1997. Like Missing the Piano, it too draws upon his own experiences in a reform school, introducing readers to the Hamstock Boys Center, where twelve-year-old Sura has been sent for stealing hood ornaments from automobiles. As Rapp remarked to Angel, "One of the things that concerns me is the lack of adult supervision, and more specifically, caring adult supervision at various reform schools and juvenile detention centers. I think there's a kind of Darwinian brutality that can run rampant when kids are given power, and if you're on the wrong end of the pecking order things can be very scary."

In The Buffalo Tree, Sura finds himself the only detainee at Hamstock who is not African American or Hispanic, and he recounts the brutal atmosphere which Mike's father and stepmother decide to send him to a military academy where he finds himself cut off from all that matters to him and subjected to senseless rigors and bullying. (Cover illustration by Timothy Okamura.) works to criminalize the boys further. Even with strict rules and regulations, abuse from other teens makes life at Hamstock a daily nightmare. Guards at the detention facility ignore potentially harmful situations, or even become involved in them. Sura is tough enough to survive, but he witnesses more timid boys, like his roommate Coly Jo, become targets of the worst bullies. Coly Jo has been sent to Hamstock for breaking and entering people's homes, where he watched them sleep. Picked on by the others, Coly Jo dies after being forced to climb a dead tree in one of the center's sadistic rituals. Sura's next roommate escapes with the intention of murdering his father. Sura himself finds salvation in running. "Although the brutality is unremitting, the book is hard to put down," thought Horn Book contributor Nancy Vasilakis, going on to state that Sura's "tone of bravado relieves the harshness without resorting to sentimentality." Booklist reviewer Susan Dove Lempke called Rapp's prose "challenging, demanding that readers become immersed in the richly realized, dark look at an American subculture," while a Publishers Weekly reviewer of The Buffalo Tree asserted that the author's "graphic images and use of first-person, present-tense narrative makes Sura's hellish story all the more real and immediate."

Rapp's first two novels found an appreciative audience among teens and educators alike, and in 1999, he was invited to spend a week as an author-in-residence at a suburban Chicago high school. As he told ALAN Review interviewer Penny Blubaugh, it "was one of the most surprisingly important events of my career as an author." He met with the student staff of Ridgewood High's literary magazine and school newspaper, and spoke to groups of students who came to visit from other high schools. He recalled being shocked when he visited an English class one day and saw eighty students all holding a copy of The Buffalo Tree, ready to talk about it with him. "With novels, there's this built-in disappearing act," he told Blubaugh. "I can write the story, but there is no immediate public culpability. The book is a thing on its own. At Norridge, this romantic idea I had of novelist-as-escape-artist was instantly proven false, and for all the right reasons." This particular ninth-grade class was designed to improve the English skills of those for whom English was as a second language, or who had encountered other difficulties. The teacher had students illustrate a book cover with favorite scenes from The Buffalo Tree to show Rapp. "Somehow, this almost moved me to tears," he told Blubaugh. "I'm still not sure why. I guess it's because they actually took the time."

Rapp's third novel for young adults, The Copper Elephant, appeared in 1999. It is set in a nightmarish, post-apocalyptic world, where the environment has been decimated by acid rain. Children are housed in brutal orphanages, and even taken as slave labor to work in lime pits. The novel's protagonist is eleven-year-old Whensday Bluenose, whose best friend dies in the dangerous underground mines. An elderly man saves Whensday from a similar fate, but not before she is sexually assaulted by an authority figure from the omnipotent Syndicate. Her rescuer then lands in trouble with the Syndicate and is falsely accused of murder, but Whensday knows who the true culprit is: a developmentally disabled teenager. In the end, a pregnant Whensday comes across a renegade group of women determined to reproduce in an effort to save their world. A Horn Book reviewer found the novel "compelling despite the unrelenting cruelty; Whensday's gripping narration describes the hellish landscape so skillfully that readers will find themselves gasping for air." Booklist contributor Debbie Carton asserted that "this raw-voiced story is both distinctive and unique, with Rapp's grim vision brilliantly executed."

Rapp discussed the portrayal of brutality in his works with ALAN Review interviewer Angel, asserting: "I am not interested in romanticizing or sensationalizing violence. I am interested in honoring what I know to be In a post-apocalyptic world, eleven-year-old Whensday and two other Undertwelves join together to struggle to flee slavery and band together as loving friends. (Cover illustration by Helen Robinson.) true. I've seen and lived through certain things that no one should be exposed to. . . . I think violence can become gratuitous when it's not serving the story. I try to steer clear of this as much as possible. In general I feel that my responsibility as an artist is to tell the truth, and it's as simple as that."

In the late 1990s, Rapp was living in New York City's East Village with his brother Anthony, who had attained fame in the hit Broadway musical Rent. A third roommate served to inspire Rapp's play Nocturne, which debuted in October of 2000 as part of the American Repertory Theatre's New Stages Series. Nocturne's story is a family tale which the unnamed narrator, once a piano prodigy, recounts in a first-act monologue. He reveals that fifteen years earlier, he was a seventeen-year-old in Joliet driving a car whose brakes suddenly failed and struck his young sister, beheading her. The play's second act follows the aftermath of the tragedy: their parents' marriage dissolves, the narrator's father spends time in a psychiatric facility, and even threatens to kill his son at one point. The narrator recounts his move to New York City, where he gives up music entirely, and instead becomes obsessed with books and literature. He returns to Joliet at the request of his estranged father, who has been diagnosed with cancer. Variety contributor Markland Taylor called Nocturne "an unremittingly dark play," and noted that "the playwright edits himself much more ruthlessly in act two, cutting much closer to the blood and bone of his central character." Taylor concluded that Rapp was "a playwright . . . to watch with keen interest." And theatergoers had several more opportunities to see Rapp's work that year; in 2000, he premiered three other plays: Faster, Dreams of the Salt-horse, and Finer Noble Gases.


Yet more plays were to come. In 2001, Rapp's Animals and Plants was produced in Cambridge under the auspices of the American Repertory Theatre. The two-act work revolves around two drug couriers from North Carolina who are waylaid by a snowstorm. As they sit the storm out in a motel room, tensions mount. Taylor, writing in Variety, called Animals and Plants "a lurid comedic phantasmagoria of life on the underside of Middle America," finding its dialogue "rough-spoken, raunchy, and sometimes guffawingly funny. . . . Rapp relishes language." The playwright also had a two-act drama premiere in London. Blackbird visits an ailing and abusive Gulf War Veteran and his girlfriend, a former stripper with a heroin addiction, on Christmas Eve. According to Matt Wolf in a Variety review, Rapp strayed from the "grave austere beauty" of Nocturne, with a play that, despite its subject matter, "suffers from a dismaying case of the cutes." The next year, Stone Cold Dead Serious was produced by the American Repertory Theatre. Taylor, writing for Variety said the play "mixes blackly comic moments with sentimental ones" and missed the "individual voice" Rapp showed in previous plays.

Rapp confesses that he is drawn to writing for the stage because of the camaraderie inherent in a production. As he told Boston Phoenix writer Carolyn Clay: "When you have a play in rehearsal, you have a family. The novelist part of me has always felt solitary and secluded. I'm not very good at parties. . . . Theater became a great excuse to talk to people." Novels, he noted, seem to take him much longer to write. "But the playwriting is this fever thing," he explained to Clay. "The plays kind of burst out of me, and I don't know why. The stuff I write about in plays tends to be the stuff that keeps me up at night, and the stuff I write about in novels tends to be the things I think about during the day."

The plot of Rapp's next novel for young adults, Little Chicago, continued in the same dark vein of his earlier fiction, concentrating on the effects of child abuse. Blacky Brown is an eleven-year-old boy who has been molested by his mother's boyfriend. He finds he has no one but himself to rely on, after his mother, siblings, friends, and social services fail to support or shield him. The only friendship he finds is from a girl who has also been rejected by the others at school, another "freak." The book's choppy first-person narrative reflects Blacky's inability to cope with his life, a horrifying existence An abused boy runs from the police with a young drug-addicted prostitute and a murderer, but a compassionate elderly black man helps him begin to understand what caring relationships can be like. (Cover illustration by Timothy Basil Ering.) filled with pain, neglect, poverty, filth, and fear. In his desperation, Blacky gets a gun. In the end, after throwing the gun away, the boy departs into the woods looking to escape. According to School Library Journal writer Connie Tyrrell Burns, it was the "bleakest yet" of Rapp's novels. She commented, "The sense of hopelessness in this disturbing novel is almost physically painful." The book prompted other warnings. A Publishers Weekly contributor said that it "contains metaphors and vocabulary that, more sophisticated than the messenger, reveal the hand of the author at work." Writing for Booklist, Gillian Engberg advised that "some of the scenes' repellent details verge on the gratuitous and occasionally the sensational." However, Lauren Adams remarked in Horn Book that "Rapp's portrayal of the abused child is sensitive, sympathetic, and honest."


Four runaway children with backgrounds even more gruesome than Blackie's populate Thirty-three Snowfish. In this novel, Rapp explores the desperation of young teens who were introduced to sex, drugs, and violence long ago. Boobie is on the run with his infant brother after killing his parents. Curl is fifteen, a drug addict and prostitute. Custis has escaped from the control of a man who produces child pornography and snuff films. Together they flee in a stolen car into rural Illinois, where two of the teens die. Custis and the baby are rescued by an elderly black man named Seldom, who takes them into his home. Despite the boy's racist attitude, it is the first healthy relationship with an adult that he has known. The story both shocked and stimulated reviewers. A Publishers Weekly reviewer responded that "readers may have trouble stomaching the language . . . as well as the horrors so flatly depicted and, in the end, so handily overcome." In School Library Journal, Joel Shoemaker judged that "spare descriptions and stellar characterization reel readers into the dark and violent world" and concluded that the book "invites both an emotional and intellectual response and begs to be discussed." And a Kirkus Reviews contributor found that "with his customary ear for the language of the marginalized teen, Rapp . . . allows his characters to present themselves in total unselfconsciousness, frankly and powerfully laying out the squalor of their existence."



Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS


ALAN Review, fall, 2000, Ann Angel, "The Bad Boys of YA," pp. 7-9, and "E-View with Adam Rapp," pp. 10-13, and Penny Blubaugh, "An Author in Residence?," pp. 14-15.

American Theatre, January, 1997, Karen Fricker, "Adam and Anthony Rapp: Genuine Bohemia," p. 50; January, 2004, review of Stone Cold Dead Serious, p. 126.

Booklist, June 1, 1994, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Missing the Piano, p. 1804; September 1, 1997, Susan Dove Lempke, review of The Buffalo Tree, p. 107; November 15, 1999, Debbie Carton, review of The Copper Elephant, p. 615; August, 2002, Gillian Engberg, review of Little Chicago, p. 1947.

Boston Herald, October 18, 2000, Terry Byrne, review of Nocturne.

Boston Phoenix, October 12, 2000, Carolyn Clay, "Night Music."

Horn Book, July-August, 1997, Nancy Vasilakis, review of The Buffalo Tree, p. 461; January, 2000, review of The Copper Elephant, p. 83; September-October, 2002, Lauren Adams, review of Little Chicago, p. 580.

Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2003, review of Thirty-three Snowfish, p. 237.

Publishers Weekly, May 23, 1994, review of Missing the Piano, p. 90; April 7, 1997, review of The Buffalo Tree, p. 93; March 11, 2002, review of Little Chicago, p. 73; January 13, 2003, review of Thirty-three Snow-fish, p. 61.

School Library Journal, April, 2002, Connie Tyrrell Burns, review of Little Chicago, p. 196; April, 2003, Joel Shoemaker, review of Thirty-three Snowfish, p. 166.

Variety, November 6, 2000, Markland Taylor, review of Nocturne, p. 29; April 16, 2001, Markland Taylor, review of Animals and Plants, p. 38; June 18, 2001, Matt Wolf, review of Blackbird, p. 26; February 18, 2002, Markland Taylor, review of Stone Cold Dead Serious, p. 43.


ONLINE


Front Street Books Web Site, http://www.frontstreetbooks.com/ (March 13, 2004), biography of Adam Rapp.*

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