Coming-of-age in 1960s Norway; the fifth novel from the Norwegian native, best known for Out Stealing Horses (2007).
It’s his first day at a new school in Oslo. He’s late. He’s wearing sunglasses. He refuses the headmaster’s order to remove them. He won’t tell his fellow students where he’s from. The message is clear: Don’t bother me. This is Audun Sletten, the 13-year-old narrator, in 1965. Why the hard shell, the truculence? His father is an abusive alcoholic. When he fired a gun through the kitchen window, it was the last straw for his mother, who moved them out. We do return to 1965, but most of the action takes place in 1970. Audun is now a high school senior; he has an early-morning paper route and is always tired in school. He is proud of his working-class identity. He is deeply influenced by American culture, loves Jimi Hendrix and Jack London, but is adamant the Americans leave Vietnam. Fiercely self-reliant, he stays clear of organizations after having been expelled from the Boy Scouts. We have met Audun before, in different settings; he’s the alienated young Westerner, and Petterson hasn’t done enough to individuate him. He’s always fighting; he drops out of school to work at a printing press, but gets into fights while still a trainee. One respite from the violence came in 1965, when Audun was sheltered by a farmer and his wife; in the novel’s best scenes, the boy luxuriates in the idyllic calm and the wife’s maternal attention. We could have used more such contrasts with the monotonous flurry of fists and at least the suggestion of a romantic life. As it is, it’s his undercharacterized mother who finds a new partner, in a crowded ending that includes the discovery of a dead body.
Will Audun ever break free of his father’s legacy? Petterson leaves that key question hanging and the reader unsatisfied.