Reviewed by Ian Sanquist
Like his fellow Scandinavian Ingmar Bergman, Per Petterson’s work is concerned largely with silences, and vast spaces, both external and internal. Unlike Bergman, Petterson’s characters do not yet appear to exist in spiritual vacuums, crushed by shame and guilt. Petterson’s characters are not moving intractably towards traumatic breakdowns. Rather, they carry on about their business with a sort of cheerful acquiescence, a stiff upper lip, an earnest belief that there’s more to life than what’s behind them, or even what’s directly in front of them.
In It’s Fine By Me, a translation of a novel first released in 1992, Petterson’s narrator, Audun, dresses in the latest fashions, desires to fight with dignity—like Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning—and prefers Jimi Hendrix to The Rolling Stones. He lives with his mother in suburban Oslo, and, when asked by his teacher about his former life in the country on the first day in his new school, declares, “There’s nothing to tell.” Audun and his mother live with two specters—memories of Audun’s younger brother who died in a car accident, and the violent tempers of his drunken father who he’s not seen in years.
As the novel begins, Audun makes friends with a boy named Arvid, and as they grow older they go driving and occasionally drinking together, though they never seem to have all that much to say to one another. This is typical, though, of the mood set throughout Petterson’s novel—these are boys on their way to being men, and men do not waste words. These are boys who roll their own cigarettes, lift weights before breakfast, read Davey Crockett books in their early years, and then Hemingway and Jack London as older teens. These are boys who go into the teen club only to tell the people who try to talk to them to “Beat it,” and start a fight. These are boys distracting themselves from inertia and ruination in the world they live in.
Arvid doesn’t care for purple prose, but Audun regularly finds himself moved by it, to his great embarrassment. Petterson, for the most part, has no taste for purple prose either—the novel is narrated in terse sentences, usually in a quick-paced present tense, with frequent scenes of splendor and natural beauty described with economy that doesn’t sacrifice scope.
So far as plot goes, It’s Fine By Me is more episodic than linear. We get scenes of Audun’s family, his newspaper route, his early venture into the wilderness where he builds himself a house out of cardboard, his days of manual labor on a neighbor’s farm, his disdain for ordinary life in working-class Oslo. We find out at a certain point that Audun harbors some inchoate desire to be a writer, but only once do we ever see him writing anything. Stations on his journey to self-realization (or growing up) involve Audun quitting school and starting work at the printing press of a newspaper.
Mirroring his reservations towards school, Audun begins wondering if the newspaper trade is perhaps not right for him, with all its tedium and danger—at one point a man loses three fingers—and thinks of getting a job as a longshoreman. But none of it matters a whole lot, because Audun insists that it’s all fine by him, until, near the end, Arvid observes, “Do you know something Audun. Nothing’s fine by you. Absolutely nothing,” and Audun offers no argument.
As an American reader, or anyone unfamiliar with the geography of suburban Oslo, something occasionally feels off reading a book where a good portion of the action described is transition from one funny-sounding locale to another. Grevlingveien, up to Trondhjemsveien, then past Grorurd, with the church, and then along Gjellerasen Ridge. One can lose his or her bearings very quickly. Luckily, the roads leading to these foreign places hold memories and melancholy to spare: hallucinatory days in bed with yellow fever; Audun’s father passed out in the snow, waking to scream for a lost love; swimming along the bottom of a river with lungs bursting for air.
At times It’s Fine By Me feels less like a story than an anthology of manly activities, a hymn of masculine self-reliance, tick marks on a checklist to machismo. It is at times disjointed to the point of seeming scattered, though the novel is not without overarching focus. Somewhat surprisingly, there is not a sexual encounter. There is, however, a cougar—an older woman on Audun’s paper route who gives him one hundred kroner for his birthday, dresses up for his arrival, tells him he could have anything he wants, tantalizing the possibility of something sultry, but Audun says he wouldn’t touch her if she paid him. These are boys for whom manhood is something spartan and chaste, a realm with no room for womenfolk, and no room for tears.
But at the end, as Audun begins to cry over a priest’s service for his father, who’s been found dead in a cabin, frozen stiff like an outtake from The Shining, he reflects that though his behavior is not stoic like Martin Eden’s—the titular character of a Jack London book Audun adores—would be, it doesn’t matter, because he’s only eighteen, and has plenty of time. Something about this—the revelation and subsequent rejection of intense human feeling—reads like a mere deferment of emotional insulation, Pink Floyd’s Wall not far ahead in Audun’s future. For now we’re left with a young person’s novel, full of unspecified longing and the chilly call of the working world.
Ian Sanquist is a student at Western Washington University. His short story “Melody of Bandaged Anemics” was published in issue two of The Coffin Factory, and his short story “Lou Reed Disputes his Parking Violations Before a Jury of his Peers” was published on The Coffin Factory’s O-Bits Fiction section.
Graywolf Press, October 2012