Who doesn’t love the hopefulness of a coming-of-age story, where a young person journeys into adulthood and transforms? But what if the metamorphosis merely results in a slightly different shade of bleak? Well, In the hands of Per Petterson (who has won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and whose work has been translated into 40 languages), that’s actually part of the pleasure. Spare, slim, and haunting, “It’s Fine By Me,’’ published a decade ago in his native Norway and newly translated, offers the same moody prose and brilliantly unsentimental character revelations that have made Petterson a literary star.
“It’s Fine By Me” centers on Audun Sletten, a 13-year-old boy growing up in 1960s and 1970s Norway, struggling with dire family drama. Audun has abruptly moved with his mother from his country home to a working-class suburb of Oslo to escape his violent, alcoholic father. He is just entering 7th grade, and his sense of disenfranchisement is palpable. “[T]he rest of the class has taken off on some journey they forgot to tell me about,” he says, refusing to take off his dark glasses and telling his teacher to limit any questions he might ask to things involving school. He manages to make one friend, Arvid, (fans will be happy to recognize him from previous Petterson novels, like “I Curse The River of Time’’), which turns into a bond so essential, that without it, he feels as if he would be “naked and cold and lost in this world.”
What immediately grabs you is Audun’s voice, which switches back and forth from the boy at 13 to him five years later, and is stubbornly elusive because the teen refuses to reveal the deeper reasons for the darkness under his deadpan. No matter how dire the situation, he repeats, like a skip in one of the records he loves, that everything is just fine by him.
Audun drifts, seemingly unable to change or move on to something better. He wants to write but doesn’t really ply his craft. He quits school. He goes to work at a printing factory. His life doesn’t seem to have any real momentum. The only things that brings him pleasure are American pop culture and rock music, the Kinks, the Hollies, the Beatles, the references popping up like jack-in-the-boxes. He’s vehement about the Vietnam War, which he opposes, and he devours Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice’’ because it’s about people who “step out of the shadows and set out on journeys never to return,” something he himself appears powerless to do.
Still, Audun grudgingly reveals enough of his past to let us know, understand, and deeply sympathize with his tragedy. He admits to Arvid that his father isn’t dead (and then of course, he wishes he hadn’t told him, because now he might “have to tell him more’’). He reveals that he had a brother Egil, whom he loved and who drove his car into a river and drowned. He has a sister Kari, who left with her boyfriend and was rescued “from suburban hell,” but now her life has derailed, and she’s beaten and brutalized. Audun’s mother struggles to find comfort and love in a new man, something Audun doesn’t approve of.
But at the center of this fractured family, looming the largest and darkest, is Audun’s father. This is a man who is still terrifyingly alive in memories, having smashed his wife’s beloved opera records and occasionally her face and Audun’s. He celebrates his son Egil’s birth by shooting three bullets into the ceiling, and he drunkenly deserts his family. While the past is frightening, the present could be even worse, as the father is spotted on the edge of town, seeming to come closer and closer. What does he want and why?
Petterson juxtaposes this monster of a dad with other fathers, giving the book a riveting poignancy. In one of the best scenes, Arvid’s father has been beaten up, and Audun encounters a sobbing, worried Arvid. Stunned by his friend’s unexpected show of emotion, Audun realizes that not only does his friend truly love his father, but Arvid’s father might actually be a man who is worthy of such devotion. Another fatherly figure, a farmer named Leif, takes Audun in when he’s in trouble, and there’s a moment of comfort. Still later, a man named Abrahamsen comes to Audun’s rescue after he’s been battered and urges him to look beyond his present circumstances, because “there are so many things in this world. It’s not just here and now.”
By the end of the book, hope manages to glint. Audun’s family reconfigures, and his pain has a breakthrough. Still though, when he thinks of what comes next, he says, “I am only eighteen. I have plenty of time.” Readers can’t help but hope that’s true.Caroline Leavitt’s new novel “Is This Tomorrow’’ will be published in May by Algonquin Books. She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.