Book review: Jon Gnarr goes on an emotionally gruelling search for his teenage self

In the second volume of his childhood memoirs, Gnarr recounts his struggles as a teen to find meaning and connection – and punks in Iceland

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 February, 2016, 4:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 February, 2016, 4:00am

The Pirate

by Jon Gnarr

Deep Vellum

The Pirate, the second instalment of Jon Gnarr’s childhood memoir trilogy, is essentially an Icelandic-punk version of Catcher in the Rye. Rather than Holden Caulfield wandering the streets of New York looking for someone who is not a phoney, Gnarr narrates in pseudo-stream-of-consciousness style his never-ending search for real punks in Iceland.

Gnarr was diagnosed at a young age with an intellectual disability caused by emotional and learning differences including dyslexia and ADHD, but went on to become an actor, comedian and mayor of Reykjavik in 2010. Both The Indian, the first instalment in the trilogy, and The Pirate are somewhat emotionally challenging texts.

When Gnarr leaves readers in The Indian, he had set off to traverse the bay in search of a place to be alone in the world. He is a wild child, an Indian.

By contrast, in The Pirate, he seems to be craving normalcy as he enters his teen years. The text is a first-person narrative broken into short, almost poetic chunks, interspersed with excerpts from psychological evaluations.

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How one defines punk is a point of contention with Gnarr. Sid Vicious is punk until he isn’t any more. Religion is squarely not punk unless attending confirmation means getting money to spend on cigarettes and punk records. To play in a punk band do you actually have to be able to play the guitar? Young Gnarr would emphatically say no, but the band doesn’t work out if you have stage fright either.

He longs to belong to anything. His family doesn’t accept him. He is malcontent at school, except in his English class. He has no luck with girls and a revolving door of “friends”, the closest of whom acknowledge his existence only when he puts himself into harm’s way.

His only respite from the verbal and physical abuse of his peers comes from punk music and the English language in which it is sung. But even that leaves him second-guessing. The last thing he wants is to find out he was actually listening to New Wave.

The text encapsulates the feelings of loneliness and being misunderstood and bullied, all while searching for identity – feelings that are all too common in the teenage experience. At times, the familiar emotions and questions posed by Gnarr’s younger self can induce anxiety in the reader. The Pirate is for that reason both a stimulating and confounding read.

Despite the dark and emotionally draining moments of The Pirate, Gnarr ends on a hopeful note, leaving readers cautiously optimistic that he will find a future and a place in this life.

Tribune News Service