Much in the same way that adolescence itself encompasses an enormous spectrum of experience, books about teenagers can be engaging for a wide age range. Rob Rufus’ memoir “Die Young With Me” is one such book that has appeal for both teenagers and young adults.
“Die Young With Me” tells the story of seventeen-year-old Rob Rufus – a twin, a drummer, a punk, and a teenager growing up in small-town West Virginia. As the book opens up, everything in Rob’s world is finally beginning to turn in his favor. He discovers the world of punk rock and forms a band with his twin brother, Nat, and their friends. The band begins gaining steady traction, earning Rob the attention of fellow punk bands as well as his new girlfriend, a popular cheerleader he never imagined he’d have a shot with. After growing up outcast from his peers and hating his slow dumpy hometown, Rob finally feels a sense of belonging and a confidence he’s never known. When the band, Defiance of Authority, gets invited to play the prestigious Warped Tour, things couldn’t be any brighter for this wide-eyed, rebellious dreamer.
That is, until he is diagnosed with Stage 4 germ cell cancer, and the road veers at full speed not toward punk rock stardom, but chemotherapy and major surgery.
Rob’s cancer treatment is told in exquisite and agonizing detail, leaving no messy symptom out. Following his diagnosis, the story bounces seamlessly from gut-wrenching scenes of treatment in the hospital, to the heavy stresses weighing on the Rufus family, to Rob’s desperate attempt to maintain a grip on some sense of normal teenage life. He watches with envy as his brother grows up, dates, gets tattoos, and lives out their collective punk-rock dream, as his own body is ravaged by chemotherapy, necessitating constant care. When the band hires a temporary drummer to take Rob’s place for the Warped Tour, it symbolizes the crux of Rob’s struggle – that his life is on indefinite hold. He isn’t as scared of death as he is of missing out on this paramount stage in his life, his opportunities and dreams stagnating as he waits out this ill-timed disease. The intensity of Rob’s adolescent anger is made all the more raw by casting it through the unforgiving lenses of both cancer and punk rock. The unfairness of his situation rips through this book, told in a voice that is present and honest.
As a former Warped Tour goer myself, this book had me steeped in nostalgia for its heyday nearly a decade and a half ago. It has been so interesting to watch several books come out over the last few years that tell the real stories of the people wrapped up in its scene. It gives a legitimacy to my teenage idolization of these rock stars and provides a poignant reminder that the music and bands don’t exist in a temporal bubble, but grow, struggle, and change right along with their fans. I find myself listening again to this music and hearing the lyrics and the heart of the songs in a whole new light, given the stories of the lives behind their creators. “Die Young With Me” is one such book that had me reminiscing about this time as well as empathizing with and appreciating another’s harrowing experience during it.
“Die Young With Me” by Rob Rufus is available for checkout from the library.