Dad knows best. Or does he? A boy’s unconventional upbringing skews his worldview in this Danish author’s third novel (but first U.S. publication).
Dad is upset. He’s sobbing. He is reacting to the news that a progressive Swedish politician has been murdered. This is how we first see the young father with the shoulder-length hair—through the eyes of his 6-year-old son, the narrator. (Neither father nor son is named.) The politics, the violence, the emotional vulnerability, they all presage the novel’s key moment. It’s 1986. The novel’s first and longest section follows father and son through the next three years, in dozens of short takes. Life is not easy. In Copenhagen, they are constantly moving. Dad is a jack-of-all-trades, working as a butcher, a gardener, a bouncer at a strip club, a stage manager at a failing theater, though never for very long. His son takes it all in stride, though, as kids do, and Dad is affectionate, protective and fun. He tells the boy a fairy tale, in installments; disturbingly, for the reader, it shows a paranoid streak. He encourages the boy’s talent for drawing though resists his pleas to go to school. His life lessons are unorthodox: Steal from stores if you’re in need; don’t save money, spend it. Eventually, Dad loses it. At a rally, he threatens a politician with a knife and is wrestled to the ground; his motivation goes unexplained. We move forward. In a topsy-turvy middle section, the boy is 16, living with his mother and stepfather, and is now a gifted but troubled high school student. There’s a visit to a dying grandfather, who hints darkly that he abused the boy’s dad. By 1999, he’s a profile in alienation. He has adopted a Turkish identity and has a nothing job; his only hope of salvation is his painting talent.
Is this the father’s story or the son’s? Bengtsson’s ambivalence proves fatal, yielding a broken-backed narrative.