It's Fine By Me by Per Petterson, the Norwegian novelist, made me think that all books about adolescence are the same book: they're about the painful process of adolescence coming to an end. There doesn't have to be a strong plot; in fact, a strong plot gets in the way; adolescence is a series of events full of feeling that don't add up. Dream all you will, life isn't going to turn out that way. And if it does, your train wreck is coming later in life…probably around thirty.
The gift offered by this particular book isn't the beauty of Petterson's Out Stealing Horses--it's the gift of a portrait of a good but tough kid, Audun Sletten, learning unpleasant and tough lessons as he dreams of becoming a writer, quits school, goes to work, has the bad things done to you you always have done to you when you're a kid working among adults, and finally finds a few tears in himself when he buries a father he'd long since decided he couldn't bear.
Here's a book in which it is possible to both sympathize and empathize. Adult readers have been through it and wish teenagers didn't have to go through it, but they do.
Auden takes his knocks in an admirable way. He has one good friend, Arvid, who reminds us how important friends are to children and adolescents, and he has a single mother who, to his surprise, isn't over the hill yet…in fact, she finds another man.
One narrative curiosity about this book struck me, i.e., the specificity of Petterson's descriptions of Audun walking or driving down this road, over that hill, past this church, along this row of houses, all of which have Norwegian names, none of which really matter to the reader as much as they do to adolescents. To make sense of this terrain, we'd have to have a map, which might make sense. But at the same time, what really matters is being reminded that when "we were young," we actually took note of where we were going; the book foregrounds this fact. After adolescence, we sort of stop naming the places we're going and the ways in which we get there. We blank out because we know the way; we think about other things; we're less present, more abstracted. During adolescence, however, every shortcut, every house that prompts a memory, every lake where we skinny-dipped, all that stuff is vivid, essential. There is no land over the horizon. There is here, right here. This is where we grew up. This is us.
And then it's gradually not us. More geography piles up in our lives, more relationships, different urges.
The interesting and presumably autobiographical irony of one of Audun's key decisions--leaving high school without graduating--is that he is a good student, perhaps so good and self-directed that school is superfluous…or perhaps (it's really not clear) he just wants to abandon something the way his father, a drunk, abandoned him…and his brother, who died in a car accident, abandoned him. I guess that's it: I'll get back at them by demonstrating that I can walk away and abandon conventional expectations, too.
This is an interesting, engaging short novel because Audun wants what happens to him to be real. He's got integrity. It's always pleasant to spend time with someone like that.
For more of my comments on fiction, please take a look at my new volume, Tuppence Reviews, available as a Kindle e-book.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund