Californium is a Frankenstein’s monster of coming-of-age stories, its many moving parts borrowed and reassembled from stock, clichéd characters and plot devices.
Californium: A Novel of Punk Rock, Growing Up and Other Dangerous ThingsPublisher: Plume
Length: 352 pages
Author: R. Dean Johnson
Publication date: 2016-07
The idealization of adolescence viewed through the filter of punk rock has, at this point, become something of a literary, coming-of-age cliché. With an ever-expanding field of contenders, it’s one that requires an extra something special for these types of novels to stick out from the pack. From Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower to Himelstein's Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing and nearly all points in between, it’s well-trod territory running short on original ideas and plot points.
It’s easy enough to see why it’s such a popular lens through which to view the disheartening adolescent outsider’s desperation to fit in with a group of people perceived as being popular, or idealized versions of "teenagedo", if you will. Yet these aspirations are often found to be ill-conceived for a multitude of reasons, one of which is the simple fact of lacking any sort of basic connection, both interpersonally and even in basic interests. It's often through these social misfits and outcasts that a revisionist take on adolescence is undertaken by nostalgia prone writers.
While this can be an effective approach if undertaken with finely detailed, nuanced brush strokes, those who attempt to paint a bigger picture tend to get lost in the stock clichés of lesser storytellers. Such is the case with R. Dean Johnson’s Californium, a story of adolescent angst that borrows liberally from television, film and literature to create stock characters who prove to be little more than amalgamations of their predecessors.
Protagonist Reece Houghton finds himself on the other side of the country, his family having left New Jersey in the wake of a personal tragedy, searching for a sense of self. Pining after the unattainable girl next door, making friends with the class wise-ass and coming under the spell of the brooding, emotionally unstable punk named Treat, Reece begins a personal journey of self-discovery that finds him navigating the often choppy waters of high school society. Coming to his own conclusions about friendship, family and punk rock, Reece follows a fairly rote path of teenage realization over the course of the novel’s fairly predictable arc.
Yet there’s a reason these types of novels have proven so endlessly appealing: the characters are relatable, often believable to a fault, and afford readers the chance to see themselves in what are often glaringly obvious character flaws. Add in the nostalgia factor and a host of period-specific pop cultural references and you’ve got the makings of the literary equivalent of click bait. It doesn’t hurt that, thematically, Californium borrows from myriad pop cultural tropes and references associated with the adolescent outcast searching for an identity and hoping to fit in with the cool crowd.
The trouble begins with the Houghton family’s unspoken tragedy, the genesis of which revolves around the absent Uncle Ryan. His shadow looms large over the story, serving as a sort of spiritual guide through which Reece attempts to parse out his problems and concerns through letters addressed to the absent uncle a la The Perks of Being a Wallflower diary-style approach.
Along with this is a stereotypically strained relationship between Reece and his parents, notably his father, who goes by the nickname “Packy”. Having moved across the country from New Jersey to Southern California, theirs is a move of desperation, an attempt to make a new start following a breaking of a familial bond eluded to throughout that leads to the nuclear family's troubles.
With the story unfolding from here, all the requisite stock characters are present: the goofy, sex-crazed best friend; the unattainable, ultimately flawed older girl; the female best friend who clearly pines for the oblivious protagonist who, in turn, realizes what's been going on all along too late; the older, wiser spiritual guide through whom the protagonist develops a greater sense of self; and the troubled peer who ultimately seeks redemption following a personal triumph over tragedy.
Reece then is the typical teen struggling to find himself as he leaves behind a clearly established childhood self in which he enjoys baseball and spending time with his father and uncle and struggles to find a defined sense of adolescent self. While he constantly strives to present himself as perhaps more mature than he actually is, he still falls back on a series of decidedly childish games, one of which involves sneaking about a neighborhood wall in a game referred to as Berlin Wall.
Seeking acceptance, he and his friends begin establishing a word-of-mouth mythos surrounding their punk band, DikNixon. While the group itself exists on an admittedly rudimentary level (as all good punk bands should) with lyrics liberally copped from Neil Diamond songs, their real world existence is predicated almost solely on the unfounded basis of rumor and speculation. This shows the impressionability of adolescents and the speed at which the lines between fact and fiction blur. When all else fails, print the legend.
In this, Californium is a Frankenstein’s monster of coming-of-age stories, its many moving parts borrowed and reassembled from stock, clichéd characters and plot devices that propelled earlier, better works to broader cultural acclaim. Johnson's story, while certainly well-told and engaging, ultimately can't help but feel hollow due to its liberal appropriation of existing narrative threads. While many of the themes afford universal, blanket application, they strive more to check the requisite boxes than engender the characters with any sort of real emotional heft.
Adolescence is easily one of the most difficult periods of anyone's life. Yet in this struggle exists a rich literary traditional from which many great works have been drawn. With its emotional minefield and interpersonal complexities, adolescence often helps shape or at the very least lay the foundation of who we will ultimately become. It's a time of frustration, euphoria, depression and childlike glee, caught between the personal and social freedoms of childhood and the complexities and social intricacies of early adulthood. Johnson’s Californium manages all of this and more, but it ultimately feels like a pale imitation of its more profound predecessors.