Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican

Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican is a cynical coming-of-age story reminiscent of J.D. Salinger, Ruth Ozeki and A.S. King. Although packaged as young adult, the novel would appeal to adults as well as to teenagers. The central characters are Catholic high school students, but we also get the perspectives of an earnest teacher, a malicious counselor, a nun/principal and a corrupt priest. The shades of the macabre are reminiscent of Stephen King, whom the author cites as his inspiration. His blurb made me request a galley from Netgalley:
“If you thought high school was hell, has Anthony Breznican got a story for you…Every bully who stalked you, every sadistic teacher who ever terrified you, every stupid prank, every hopeless crush and false friend: they’re all here, along with a few kids who hang together and try to do the right thing in a brutal environment. By turns funny and terrifying, Brutal Youth is an unputdownable tour-de-force, a Rebel Without a Cause for the 21st century.” —Stephen King
Those who find Stephen King too scary to read should not shy away from Anthony Breznican. There is a major gross-out scene in the opening of Brutal Youth, but then the narrative refocuses on the psychological horrors of bullying, the implied threats. Seniors at Saint Michael's routinely haze the freshman and the administration rarely intervenes. Meanwhile, the school is physically rotting from the inside out, a metaphor of corruption and decay.

Peter Davidek, a nerdy freshman with a kind heart, is an obvious target for bullies. Our protagonist teams up with Noah Stein, a charismatic boy with a troubled past, to fight the system. The boys form a Harry Potteresque threesome with beautiful Lorelei Paskal, who has an agenda of her own. The narrative is set in the 1990s, but apart from the absence of cell phones, it doesn't feel out of date.

What makes Brutal Youth stand out from other young adult books about bullying is its bleak perspective. The kids are selfish and often cruel, and the adults are either negligent or abusive. In a traditional coming-of-age book, the naive hero develops an ethical code, but in this case, our compassionate hero is at risk of losing his moral integrity. In order to survive, Davidek must shed his kind personality and resort to Machiavellian measures to achieve justice and social harmony. A happy ending seems unlikely.

Brutal Youth is not an easy book to read, but it's even harder to put down. The characters are wonderfully drawn, if exaggerated for dramatic effect, and the writing is a winning mix of page-turner suspense and well-observed descriptions. I found many sentences to highlight:
The setting: "Lockers slammed like gunfire." 
The evil guidance counselor: "Once-delicate features had gone soft and round, slightly wrinkled, as if they had swollen and then deflated."..."Bromine. It was a name like soap in the mouth." 
A victim: "Lorelei's shoes clicked in the pockets of silence she created."..."The crowd parted as she passed. No one said a word. Not until she was gone."
Author Anthony Breznican
Brutal Youth was an exceptionally strong debut, despite a few minor faults. Noah disappears halfway through the narrative, deflating tension. Lorelei was an interesting character, but her mixed motives and inconsistent behavior didn't make sense. Other characters were almost comically evil. However, Davidek and his antagonist, Hannah, were wonderfully drawn and well-nuanced. Adding the occasional perspective of adult characters reminded me of A. S. King's writing style. Despite all the head hopping, the narrative didn't lose focus. It was entertaining and funny too. The author writes for Entertainment Weekly.

I love books like Brutal Youth that are hard to categorize, that bridge the YA/Adult and the literary/commercial marketing lines. This universal story about the dark side of human nature would appeal to a wide audience, especially to teenaged boys. I'm impressed with this debut and am curious to see what Anthony Breznican will write next. This book would make a good movie. Brutal Youth will be released on June 10th, 2014 by Thomas Dunne Books at Macmillan.

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@Barrie Summy


Rose said...

Another great review, Sarah! Although I seldom read YA novels, I appreciate knowing what's new and worth reading for this age group. I remember that it was here that I first heard of "The Fault in Our Stars." As you have described it here, "Brutal Youth" does sound like another good candidate for a movie!

Stacy Nyikos said...

I really enjoy the thoughtfulness and thoroughness. I pretty much want to read every book you review! This one included, especially since the name of my grade school's was St. Michael's. It, fortunately, was not rotting from the inside out, but what a clever way to layer setting into plot and emotional arc. Really clever.

Barrie said...

"Brutal Youth is not an easy book to read, but it's even harder to put down. " There's where you have me. :) I'm also interested to see how the author juxtaposes humor with such a bleak story. Thanks for putting this book on my radar. And thank you for reviewing this month!

Sarah Laurence said...

All, the over-the-top evil priest in this novel was inspired by a real person. The author just shared the link with me on twitter.

Rose, my daughter and I can't wait to see the TFIOS movie. Brutal Youth read a bit like a screenplay. I enjoyed your review too.

Stacy, thank you! I feel that about your reviews too. I review about a third of the books that I read since I only want to share the best ones. I'll be interested in Catholic school alumna's view of this book. Let me know what you think of it.

Barrie, thanks for hosting the book club! I'm looking forward to chatting about this book with you. It would be a good one to listen to in the car but maybe not when your daughter is a passenger. It's more appropriate for older teens.

Jenn Jilks said...

Stunning review. I'm not sure if this is a pass or grab for me! It reminds me of the Pen Men, the inmates I worked with on creative writing! Very dark stuff.
Well done!

Lucy said...

I'm glad you clarified that someone who doesn't want to read Stephen King scary books shouldn't shy away from this book because it sounds very interesting but I can't read Stephen King. Thanks for the review. :)

tina said...

Wow! It sounds like a scary book indeed. Almost as scary as the Faculty. Good thing I love scary books and Stephen King like books. I will have to check it out.

A Cuban In London said...

Like you I gravitate towards books that are hard to label. This one sounds interesting. I remember going through a Stephen King phase back in uni. Maybe it's time to go for his "heir". :-). ANother five-star review.

Greetings from London.

Anonymous said...

I love your reviews, Sarah. The below is like a haiku review all by itself:
Brutal Youth is not an easy book to read, but it's even harder to put down.

classesncamps said...

i liked your review. if i get time then will read the book for sure.

troutbirder said...

Good review, Sarah. I think I'm likely to remain conflicted about this book in spite of or maybe because of your review. Perhaps being a retired teacher and away from the scene of action and content with that is the reason. Or not being much of a fan of the 21st century as well....:)

Petra Pavlátková said...

Sarah, I wouldn't have choosen such a book in a book store but after reading your review I feel utterly tempted to buy and read it. I'll surely add it on my to-be-read list!