Just a few lines of Per Petterson and you can’t help but be anxious. Something awful is about to happen. The most ordinary circumstances — a day at work, a drive in the country — are charged with danger. Accidents abound; fights likewise. Drunkenness and passion are rarely far away and never benign. There is a great deal of wind and weather, most of it cold, when not actually freezing. Exposed and vulnerable, the body is braced to recoil. The skin cracks, chaps and bruises; the inner organs churn in response to unwanted emotion. The past is too perilous to explore and always likely to detonate in the minefield of the present. The future is uninsurable.
Petterson’s heroes respond to this hostile world with craft and expertise: driving expertly, making a good coffee, lighting a fire, working a complicated machine. They are meticulous and skilled, but with the skill of patience and hyper-alertness, not natural genius. How else protect yourself against life’s vicissitudes, how else to win the respect of others? Other people offer shelter and love; but they can betray you too. Brothers and sisters, friends and lovers, fathers and mothers are prominent in his books; it is always a mistake to rely on them.
Writing in Norwegian, Petterson made his name in 2005 with Out Stealing Horses, which brings together all the disquieting elements of his vision in a plot as brilliant as it is unhappy, combining dramatic accounts of logging and male rivalry with betrayals of every kind, most painfully a father’s betrayal of his son. Since that tour de force, in addition to the recent novel I Curse the River of Time, Harvill Secker has published two earlier novels: To Siberia, which focuses on a troubled girl and her reckless brother during the Nazi occupation of Norway — another excellent read — and now It’s Fine by Me, which first appeared in Oslo in 1992. The tale of an adolescent misfit who sees possible salvation in becoming a writer, this edgy bildungsroman makes explicit what many will already have suspected: for Petterson, the craft of writing, of carefully reconstructing life’s precariousness in sentences as solid and unassuming as bricks, is itself a way of building shelter. For those who see danger everywhere, literature is a place of refuge.
We first meet Audun Stetten as his new headmaster demands he remove his sunglasses. Aged 13, the boy refuses. He has bad scars, he says. He is sensitive to the light. Invited in class to describe the village life he has left behind, he won’t. At the end of his first lesson, he makes sure he is last to leave the room; he doesn’t want anyone behind him. But no sooner has Audun settled in than he finds school too tame; his home life is so much more intense. Audun’s mother has moved her three children to a suburb of Oslo to escape their violent father, a man who has a habit of firing off a gun whenever he gets drunk.
Courageous precisely because so intensely aware of danger, Petterson’s heroes always find themselves surrounded by others who are alarmingly reckless. Audun’s brother Egil takes a girl for a spin in a borrowed car, plunges into a river and drowns. Audun’s friend Arvid also has a bold streak: he raises a rebel flag on the school flagpole and gets himself expelled. Older now, Audun keeps his head down, taking pleasure in the efficiency with which he does his paper round, using his earnings to buy dumbbells so he can develop the muscle he’ll need to beat up the man his older sister has gone to live with. Audun sees him as a younger version of his father, whose menacing presence is never far away.
There is plenty of action, but it is not what the reader or Audun expects. Fired up by family conflicts and Jack London novels, the boy gets involved in pointless fights with random enemies. A cry for help from his sister has him imagining a showdown with her man, when really she only wants a lift home for Christmas. There’s a dour comedy in this constant mismatch between imagination and reality. Abandoning school to work with a rough crew of men in a print factory, Audun finds neither satisfaction nor vocation. The change he is waiting for simply refuses to happen.
Yet lurch as he does from one crisis to another, Audun is growing up, and the fact that we feel that maturity is the novel’s success.
It’s Fine by Me
By Per Petterson
(translated by Don Bartlett)
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