How many lives do you think that punk rock has changed? Maybe that’s a stupid question. Still, for better or worse, I believe we can agree that it’s changed lives. I’m not saying that it’s changed the world or actually led to any sort of discernable revolution (feel free to quibble with that), but I know that it’s at least changed my life, and the life of The House of Tomorrow‘s inhabitant and protagonist, Sebastian Pendergrast. Author Peter Bognanni is noted in his bio to have “once played in a terrible high school punk band,” so actually, I guess that makes three.
The House of Tomorrow is not only the title of the book, but the name of the house that Sebastian lives in with his Nana, a faithful follower of the teachings of one L. Buckminster Fuller—an actual historical figure who was a scholar and genius of sustainability. Inside the House of Tomorrow (a geodesic dome), Nana hosts informational tours for visitors and preps Sebastian for his path toward the world’s salvation through ecological sustainability. However, when Nana falls ill, Sebastian is taken in by another, more “normal” family, and comes to realize that he knows nothing about the real world—the one he is meant to save. As it turns out, this realization understandably irks and, in some ways, embarrasses him.
During Sebastian’s time outside the dome, Jared, the son of the family who takes him in, introduces him to punk rock. Bognanni makes sure to drop names of all the genre’s staples, including the Ramones, Dead Kennedys, Fugazi, and most importantly (to me, and the story) the Misfits. Jared has a heart condition and an attitude. His mother treats him like he is incapable of anything, and so he, too is sheltered from the world in a way that is similar, yet divergent from Sebastian’s. It is in this way that they are able to learn from each other, and grow together. (That last sentence is such an un-punk thing to say that I can feel Jared calling me a freak from the pages of the book.)
Bognanni, who teaches at Macalester College, achieves a near-perfect storytelling style with this book. It’s simple, and not flowery—it’s not that kind of book. The story is what’s important, not the prose—although the prose is very clean and elegant. It feels as if Sebastian and Jared are built from bits of Bognanni’s experiences, making the novel a stunning wormhole back to the teenage thought process. Yet, at the same time, there is a maturation of the book over time, an increase of people, experiences and emotions that really tie the reader to Sebastian, a home-schooled “freak” who talks like a weirdo. Eventually, for readers who can remember being a teenager—even the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, dweebies—Bognanni leads everyone to a place where the rebellion pays off, and no one is powerless in the face of the forces in the world. Everyone is a living, adroit thing, rocking out in this world all together.
On a personal note, when I was 13 I took a young ambassadors’ trip to Europe. While there, I met a girl who had a heart condition, and who introduced me to punk rock. We didn’t start a band together, or remain friends for all that long, but it really was weird to me that I had almost lived this story. Almost. I mean, hardly at all, but you get it.
The House of Tomorrow is the April selection of Books and Bars; it will be discussed on April 26th at the Aster Café. Peter Bognanni will be there in person. Among other places, The House of Tomorrow is available for purchase at Magers and Quinn.