Books

Coming of Age in Norway: Per Petterson's 'It's Fine By Me'

It’s Fine By Me may appear to be a slim book, lacking a flashy storyline or extraordinary characters. But this is precisely what makes the novel so special.


It's Fine By Me

Publisher: Graywolf
Length: 199 pages
Author: Per Petterson
Price: $22.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-11
Amazon

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.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image