By Eric Thomas
It’s tough to be young, and that’s the base of Anthony Breznican’s debut novel, Brutal Youth, out tomorrow from Thomas Dunne Books. You’re at the mercy of adults who are probably learning parenthood on the fly, grist for the proverbial mill of whatever school system you’re attending, and a potential target for your classmates who view your head as a rung on the social ladder. This novel will stir memories inside of you, both positive and negative, ably placing it among—though admittedly above—the dearth of stories available about the emergence of early adulthood.
Saint Michael the Archangel High School, a private Catholic institution nestled in a leafy suburb of Pittsburgh, teeters on the edge of chaos. Students have formed an iron-clad caste system between freshman, juniors and seniors. Faculty members are mostly apathetic and absent, turning a blind eye to the violence and degradation among the students. They’ve decided to control hazing by allowing it to thrive at the school’s annual picnic, a well-intentioned idea that produces feelings of dread among the first year student that lasts most of the year. Freshman see survival as the paramount concern.
They have reason to fear. The story opens with a student who’s escaped onto the roof; he’s completely snapped from the school’s near constant bullying and badgering. The first years get a front row seat for the worst case scenario and spend the rest of the year carefully navigating the thorny social situations; they want to avoid becoming the next “boy on the roof.”
The novel stands starkly apart from the dearth of so-called “young adult” style novels that follow the familiar paths of students facing a year in high school. The students at St. Mike’s feel a lot like the real people you went to school with, but amped to the extreme. They’re all paralyzed by fear of being ridiculed. Beatings and violence are treated casually, as they will end at some point, but teasing lasts forever.
The narrative focuses on three freshman: Peter Davidek, the affable every man protagonist; Noah Stein, a tragically scarred bruiser with a heart of gold whose short temper led him to St. Mike’s as a last resort, and Lorelei Paskal who is desperate to be popular. Lorelei provides the best laughs early in the novel because her every action has been researched. She wants befriend a handicapped student because it will make her look forgiving. Every move she makes and even her appearance have been calculated for effect; she’s cold in a sympathetic way.
The book slogs a bit in it’s first half, as it blazes the same trail as other contemporary novels covering the plight of high school students. While its unfair to judge a book because there are many other novels that cover similar territory, its hard not to feel like this is all so familiar. I was reminded of the Harry Potter novels in several spots, which followed the same format of a year spent in school, complete with the usual dances, detentions and mentions of holidays to mark the pages turning on the calendar.
Breznican’s best character is Hannah, a mysterious girl who spends much of the novel at an arm’s length away from the reader. When her circumstances were revealed, I turned the pages with wide eyes. She’s Breznican’s best character and I only wish we would have seen more from her.
The second half accelerates when a character’s unexpected betrayal defines the lines. Mr. Breznican ends that familiar lull and ups the violence. The twists works, and the novel spends its second half barreling ahead, but it would be unfair to reveal any more. You’ll probably see the story’s penultimate moment coming, but the events in the periphery make up for it.
The book is well written, the characters are complex and interesting, and there’s an honesty behind the narrative. There’s a good theme of escalation happening in the background, where the violence and cruelty of the students only begets more violence and humiliation. The novel also reminds you of how trivial high school can be. The problems among the student body at St Mikes are pedestrian, yet the kids meet them with crazy intensity. You can’t help but laugh at their juvenile attitudes toward sex (if a girl threatened me in high school that she’d reveal a sexual encounter, I’d probably have welcomed the attention) and their over-inflated worry that their secrets will be exposed.
Brutal Youth is a breezy summer read. The characters are well sketched, the stakes are high in the second half, and the novel has good things to say about the trails of being young. You leave with the feeling that kids are often the victims of choices that they never made, and discipline and strictness only create more barriers for young people that are having a tough enough time already.