Per Petterson’s coming of age novel, written in 1992, has only recently been translated into English. Reviewing books in translation is often tricky; it can be difficult to determine when a writer’s voice is impacted by the translation. Fortunately, the able Don Bartlett takes Petterson’s Norwegian, a notoriously difficult language for non-natives, and remains true to the dryly incisive style that made Out Stealing Horses a worldwide bestseller.
Teenager Audun Sletten lives with his mother and sister in the Norwegian village of Veitvet. His younger brother, Egil, drowned after running his sister’s boyfriend’s car into a freezing lake. The family is mourning this even as Audun’s father, a violent alcoholic, casts a constant shadow over their lives. Audun’s early childhood was marred by his father’s drunken beatings and proclivity to pump bullets into the family home. His mother finally moves the family to Veitvet, unaware that her spouse lives in the woods nearby.
Audun is a bright boy who longs to be writer. He’s also a working-class adolescent who assumes a tough-guy guise, wearing sunglasses at all times and chafing at authority. His readiness to use his fists is reminiscent of Andre Dubus III’s memoir, Townie: both are boys with largely absent fathers, little money, and sisters with abusive boyfriends, inhabiting a working-class milieu where violence and alcohol are pervasive.
Although Audun works hard to present a tough surface, beneath is a sensitive, observant boy. An avid reader, he adores Jack London, worships Hemingway, and is both grateful and awed by his best friend Arvid’s book-filled home.
It’s Fine By Me begins with Audun at 13. He’s adjusting to his new school in Veitvet and contributing to family finances by working an exhausting paper route at dawn and after school.
“I am tired, I still have homework to do and sinking feeling… tells me school is not going the right way… it’s as if the rest of my class has taken off on some journey they forgot to tell me about, as if there is a secret pact between teachers and students that does not include me.”
The paper route offers time to reflect, to worry. Audun’s sister Kari has moved in with her boyfriend, whom Audun is certain beats her. Arvid is active in the school’s National Liberation Front, which is protesting American involvement in Viet Nam. Audun is less interested in politics than the immediacy of his surroundings; each home on the route has a story to tell, including the final house, where the amorous, married Fru Karlsen lives.
Audun’s mother is a shadowy figure, a woman living in fear of her husband, unwilling or unable to be a strong parental figure. Audun comes and goes as he pleases. He eyes older men warily, sizing each up: indicators of physical fitness and strength are important markers. A muscular man merits respect. A few of his teachers, particularly those interested in literature, also earn regard.
Other adults step into the breach; one summer Audun runs away from home, fleeing his father, and ends up staying with the kindly Leif and his wife, Signe. The couple’s children have left home, and they accept Audun unquestioningly, Signe feeding him homemade bread and jam while Leif teaches him farm work. Later, when Audun learns to drive, Arvid’s father loans him his car. Most surprisingly, an Old Abrahamsen, an elderly man on his paper route, becomes a source of support during a crisis.
As It’s Fine By Me progresses, Audun grows from a questioning 13 year-old to an 18-year-old. His longing to become a writer only grows, even as he leaves school, taking work in a printing plant, a grueling job described in unsparing detail. The work is demanding and dangerous, the men who perform it hardened and often embittered. There is much fighting and drinking, and although Audun remains sensitive at heart, too often he finds himself at the wrong end of fistfight.
Without giving away too much, like Andre Dubus III, Audun gradually begins coming around. He allows himself to feel and express warmth toward his family and infant niece; when his mother remarries, he finds himself liking his new stepfather. As the book closes, the refrain of the title, the equivalent of the sullen teenaged “whatever” (or, oh well, whatever, nevermind) has changed. The irony has given way to acceptance: it is fine by him.
Petterson is a master of setting and place, his writing surrounding the reader subtly, shading in details. The reader can easily envision Audun as he walks Veivet’s hot summer roads or struggles to keep a car running during the freezing Norwegian winter. The Sletten’s meager apartment, with its hotplate, linoleum, and old windows, bespeaks the family’s limited finances, as does their recently acquired telephone. Audun’s fondness for Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles, along with Arvid’s political activities, tell us we’re in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
In sum, It’s Fine By Me may appear a slim book, lacking a flashy storyline or extraordinary characters. This is precisely what makes the novel so special: it appears unprepossessing until one begins reading, and is taken in by Auden Sletten, a teenager trying to grow up decently in difficult circumstances. It’s Fine By Me is a small, quiet book, and all the better for it.