It’s Fine by Me

  • Per Petterson, translated by Don Bartlett
  • Graywolf Press
  • 208 pp.

In this coming-of-age novel, two directions take the reader back to the cause of the hero’s unhappiness and forward to his hope

Reviewed by Keith Donohue

Perhaps we have been tainted by the Nordic Noir, the highly successful writers from Scandinavia known for their crime fiction: Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole or Stieg Larsson’s tattooed girl or Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer or Henning Mankell’s Wallander. Confronted with another Norwegian novel, our expectations rise. Style is pared down and minimalist. Characters are maddened or at least slightly depressed by the bleak weather. A brutal world lies just below the austere surface, behind the closed doors and drawn shades.

A cold climate may indeed foster a literary outlook tending toward a clean and concise style, and inevitably characters reflect the reality faced by people living in such unforgiving lands. The work of Norwegian writer Per Petterson shares some elements of that Scandinavian outlook and sensibility, but his is a much more nuanced view. Petterson’s brutality cuts more deeply without the sensationalism, when the story itself comes closer to the bone of everyday life.

Five years ago, readers in the U.K. and U.S. were first introduced to Petterson with the publication of the English translation of the extraordinary Out Stealing Horse, which won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and was named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review, Time and other journals. Over the next six years, Petterson’s British publisher and Graywolf Press in the U.S. are planning to release four of his backlist titles in English. His early novel It’s Fine by Me, first published in Norwegian in 1992, is the initial new volume, appearing on these shores in October.

It’s Fine by Me is a coming-of-age novel, or more precisely a künstlerroman, the portrait of an artist as a young man. Narrated by 18-year-old Audun Sletten, the story is set in the drab suburbs of Oslo in 1970 and moves between the present and the beginning of his adolescence five years earlier. Indeed, we meet Audun at 13 on the day of his arrival at a new school, where he refuses to answer personal questions and insists on wearing sunglasses indoors, lying to the headmaster that he has terrible scars around his eyes.

Later that same day, he meets Arvid Jansen on the playground and strikes up the one true friendship he will make among his peers. (Fans of Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time and In the Wake will recognize Arvid as the protagonist of those later novels.) The two are drawn to each other by a shared rebellious spirit and a love for literature of the hard-boiled sort, particularly Hemingway and Jack London. It is after reading London’s proletarian romance Martin Eden that Audun realizes his true calling: “There is something about this book, and there is something about his struggle, and as soon as I had read it I knew I wanted to be a writer, and if I didn’t make it, I would be an unhappy person.”

Many other reasons explain Audun’s unhappiness. A menace has driven him from the countryside to the working-class public housing, complete with a “Sing-Sing balcony that runs along the third floor.” Just beyond the neighborhood, “There is a man dressed in black wandering the paths of the great forest. He walks day and night with a grey rucksack on his back. In the rucksack he has a pistol. Sometimes there is a metallic click when it knocks against other things he carries with him. But no one hears.”

Coupled with this threatening presence, the devastating loss of his younger brother has further unmoored Audun. He suffers not only the ordinary anger and anxiety of adolescence, but the weight of his family history. Like many romantic figures, he masks his feelings with coolness and distances himself through a contrived indifference. “It’s fine by me,” he answers when confronted with the pain in his life.

Yet some of the most beautiful passages in the story are in the aftermath of brutal incident and accident, when Audun finds some comfort in the generous love and care of adults. At one point he is rescued by a farmer and his wife Signe, who give him temporary shelter in their home, and feed him bread and jam, and make him feel truly welcome for the first time. He remembers trundling to bed after a hard day’s farm work: “At ten o’clock I was sent upstairs with a hug from Signe, and I was so greedy for it that I blushed. I tried to think as little as possible. I just drank it all in.”

As with many coming-of-age novels, the plot is secondary to the mood, and the story relies upon the accretion of incidents as a way of revealing character. The book is filled with violence and longing, romantic dreams and clumsy affection, rebellion and reconciliation. Like many a teenager, Audun ends up quitting school at 18 and going to work as an apprentice at a printers’, taking a page from his working-class role models, coming at last to manhood by confronting the menace from the woods and the hardships of his past and opening his broken heart again to his family.

It’s Fine by Me is exquisitely structured, moving in two directions at once, back to the cause of its hero’s unhappiness and forward to his hope. Petterson’s crystalline prose quietly reveals the tenderness behind Audun’s practiced nonchalance. At a funeral late in the story, Audun finds himself crying: “It’s so goddamn embarrassing, I hide my face in my hands so I don’t have to look at Arvid, or any of them. Martin Eden would never have done that, I know, but, hell, I am only eighteen. I have plenty of time.”

Keith Donohue is the author of three novels. His latest, Centuries of June, will appear in paperback in November.

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