The world is not fine for Auden Sletten, protagonist/narrator of "It's Fine by Me," no matter how often he mutters that phrase, which is frequently. This will not surprise readers of the Norwegian author Per Petterson -- winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for "Out Stealing Horses" -- whose characters dwell in worlds weighted with family strife and emotional turmoil.
Though those themes reign, more hope than usual punctuates this taut coming-of-age novel, first published in Norwegian in 1992 and recently translated into English by Don Bartlett.
The story bores into Auden's life at two transitional stages: when at 13 he, his mother and his older sister leave behind his brutal, drunken father and move from the countryside to a working-class Oslo neighborhood, and after he drops out of school and begins work at a printing press. This two-part structure allows Petterson to explore subjects that clearly fascinate him: the profound impact of family, the working poor, the way relationships can ease us through the world. He does so in a story that grabs us with its beautiful writing and authentic characters.
We meet the 13-year-old Auden, barricaded behind a pair of sunglasses, as he swaggers into his first day of school, tardy. ("I liked the distance they created," he says of the glasses later in the novel.) The death of his older brother haunts him, as does his father. His mother has yet to find a job, and to help make ends meet, Auden delivers newspapers in the early morning. From the outset, we can't help but root for this diligent, intelligent boy who seems to wrap up his pain and disappointment with insolence and indifference. "The bell rang and I was the last to leave, I didn't want anyone at my back," he says on that first day at school.
He wants no friends. Still, he is drawn to Arvid Jansen, whom readers may know as the hapless, wrought protagonist from "I Curse the River of Time." (I praised that book on these pages when it was published in English in 2010, and I enjoyed the glimpse of an adolescent Arvid, and a kinder perspective on his father that this book, written before "River," provides.)
The two friends discuss politics, roam the bleak neighborhood and read Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. (Petterson's focused and spare writing, it must be said, pays homage to both writers.) Auden himself wants to write. On his newspaper rounds, he passes the home of a few writers. "Like birds on a wire, they sit in their windows looking up to the sky with the sun on their faces, holding on to the secret, and I envy them so furiously it makes my legs tremble."
Petterson is among the writers who knows a secret or two -- about life, about writing. The melancholy story, and the superb writing that propels it, are both raw and honest -- the brutality of the father, the disregard of printing-press colleagues, the ugly street fights -- and also deeply compassionate. In both of the book's halves, Auden finds refuges along his troubled way. In the end, the young man -- and readers -- find much-needed catharsis, and a hint that Auden, finally, will uncover a few secrets of his own.
Kerri Westenberg is the Star Tribune's travel editor.