On the first page of Per Petterson’s recently translated novel, “It’s Fine by Me,” the teenage narrator shows up at a new school wearing sunglasses in the rain. He lies to the headmaster about why he refuses to take them off (“Terrible scars around my eyes”), then tells a different lie to the first classmate who befriends him.
Clearly, not all is fine in Audun Sletten’s life — and he will spend most of this subtle, surprising book trying to figure out why.
It’s not that there aren’t obvious reasons. Audun is attending that new school because his mother has packed up her children and fled the Norwegian countryside for Oslo, leaving a disastrous marriage behind. A few years later, his brother drives a Volvo into a river and drowns. And at 18,Audun is haunted not only by his lost brother, but by the wraithlike figure of his still-living father, described in a dreamlike passage that begins Chapter 4: “There is a man dressed in black wandering the paths in 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 clink when it knocks against other things he carries with him. But no one hears.”
Yes, that pistol will figure in the story to come. But as readers of other Petterson novels know, the blasted family landscapes of his fiction are not created by anything as obvious as gunfire.
“It’s Fine by Me” was first published in Norway in 1992. Like “Out Stealing Horses,” the book that won Petterson international acclaim in 2007, it evokes a boy’s confrontation with unsuspected adult reality. One of the pleasures of both novels is the fluidity of Petterson’s narrative, the way he loops back and forth in time while introducing characters who seem, at first, only loosely related to the central drama.
When Audun and his friend Arvid, for example, borrow Arvid’s father’s car and head out of Oslo — despite the fact that Audun can barely drive and neither boy knows how to put fuel in the vehicle — the trip starts out like the kind of random, best-buddies excursion that allows them to shake off hangovers and reminisce about the horrors of the Boy Scouts. It turns out, however, that Audun has a more complex motive. He wants to visit a farmer who once offered him, all too briefly, an alternate vision of what family life could be. The flashback to that vision and its betrayal is heartbreaking.
At another point, Arvid’s father is beaten up by some young toughs, and Arvid, blind with rage, sets out to take revenge. Audun helps him and, in the process, learns a couple of things. One is that Arvid loves his father, a possibility that Audun — who has mostly seen the two fighting — had never considered. Another is that there exists a visceral connection between anger and love. Unable to calm his friend, Audun is on the verge of hitting him but ends up hugging him instead. “I don’t know if I dare let him go,” he thinks. “If I do, I will feel naked and cold and lost in this world.”
Being a teenager, of course, can make anyone feel naked and cold and lost — let alone a boy who once watched his father hauled home dead drunk, in a shovel attached to a tractor, and dumped at the front door.
Audun’s confusion has a rawness untempered by adult reflection. Unlike the narrator of “Out Stealing Horses,” who gets to look back on the shocks of his youth from the perspective of old age, he is still in his teens when the novel ends. But he is more of a battler than a victim, and to the last page, he keeps struggling to understand.
By this time, the pistol has gone off, his father has reappeared, and Audun has come across a startling clue to his parents’ inexplicable lives. When we last see him — sobbing uncontrollably and embarrassed about it — he consoles himself by invoking the future, not the past.
“I am only eighteen,” he thinks, hiding his face in his hands. “I have plenty of time.”
Thompson’s book “Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier” will be published in March.
IT’S FINE BY ME
By Per Petterson
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Graywolf. 199 pp. $22