The sadism and smaller cruelties of high school get a workout in this patchy novel, which features violence and bloodshed without a single vampire, werewolf or zombie.
Pittsburgh-area St. Michael’s needs major repairs to its building, staff and traditions as the school year starts in 1991. In the cinematic opening flashback, a tormented boy on the school’s roof topples statues of saints toward kids below. Freshmen confront not just the usual first-year anxieties, but yearlong hazing by seniors. A budding friendship between newbies Peter Davidek and Noah Stein becomes an enduring alliance, despite their shared desire for classmate Lorelei Pascal. She wants to be popular, Peter hopes to survive, but in the smart, fearless Noah, Breznican creates a likable rebel. Born of Jewish and Lutheran parents, his troubled back story includes his mother’s death in a fire that scarred his face and constant fights that lead to being expelled from public school, leaving St. Mike’s his only option. The ineffectual staff includes many St. Mike’s alumni, who tend to abet the hazing they too once suffered or to inflict their own punishments. The exception is the well-intentioned principal, Sister Maria, who battles the insidious pastor, Father Mercedes, a caricature of nastiness (he smokes in church!). The school’s most-powerful person is senior Hannah Kraut, feared by students and staff alike because she has been collecting everyone’s secrets in a notebook that will be aired before graduation. That's an obvious echo of the movie Mean Girls and its “Burn Book,” yet Breznican weaves a much darker tale than Tina Fey’s, one in which there seems to be no limit to the kinds and amount of pain young people will inflict on one another.
Readable and clever, this novel might make an easy transition to the movie screen, where stock characters, oblivious parents and needless repetition are familiar, but today's audiences probably won't go for a look at an era that lacks the viral abuses of cyberbullying.