On an early morning in Oslo in 1970, Arvid Jansen shimmies up his high school flagpole and replaces his nation’s flag with that of the Viet Cong. Confronted by the headmaster in front of his classmates, Arvid takes the opportunity to expound on the evils of the U.S. occupation of Vietnam and Norway’s complicit foreign policy, all the time being observed from a far corner by his good friend Audun Sletten. “I guess it’s all very important,” Audun shrugs, “but I am up to my neck in my own troubles, and it almost makes me want to throw up.”
Frequent readers of Per Petterson have by now come to know Arvid Jansen rather well. In typical Petterson fashion, Arvid’s life has been examined in alternating atemporal versions set forth in In the Wake and, most recently, in the masterful I Curse the River of Time. Arvid is often the vehicle through which the author explores and recasts episodes of his own past—“[h]e’s not my alter ego, he’s my stunt man,” Petterson stated in a 2009 interview with The Guardian. Vulnerable, self-absorbed, and made miserable by hindsight, Arvid is an incredibly sympathetic character. If for no other reason than this, then, English readers should be delighted to now have access to one of Petterson’s early novels (first published in Norway in 1992): It’s Fine By Me.
Arvid is a prominent character in the novel, but it isn’t his story. Rather, it’s that of his troubled friend Audun, a young man who, with his “real problems”—a violent and drunken father who is, luckily, often absent; a beloved but drug-addicted younger brother, killed in a car accident; a lonely single mother struggling to support her children; and numbing jobs with long hours and little respect—is the actual embodiment of the working class hero that Arvid has so frequently wished to be. But as seen through Audun’s eyes, there’s nothing in the least romantic about his situation in life.
“It’s fine by me,” (reminiscent of Elliot Gould’s own cynical chorus of “It’s okay with me,” in Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye) is Auden’s go-to retort, forced in its apathy when pretty much everything that he remarks on is anything but. In fact, Audun cares a great deal about what happens around him—cares about his sister who he thinks may be in an abusive relationship, cares about a neighbor whose brother is getting into drugs, cares about Arvid and his family, cares about doing well in school, and literature, and Jimi Hendrix, and woodsy hideouts where he felt safe as a child. But isolating himself and not caring—or at least giving the appearance of not caring—is far easier and exposes him less.
Although there actually is quite a lot in the way of plot happenings, It’s Fine By Me is a rather familiar, somewhat anticlimactic coming-of-age narrative where the ‘what’ matters far less than the ‘how.’ This is by no means Petterson’s strongest novel, nor should it really be expected to be—it was, after all, one of his first. But although the flashbacks and overlapping memories fold together less seamlessly than in other Petterson novels, although the emotional pitch is generally less subtle (lots of capital letter exclamations when people are angry), and the visual metaphors more overdetermined (a beautiful runaway horse, turning just before it knocks over young Audun and Arvid), the novel is still compelling, and sometimes even quite funny. (A scene in which Audun and Arvid have to figure out how to put gas in Arvid’s father’s car is particularly delightful.) Petterson’s characterizations are always both sharp and empathetic, his prose measured, poetic, and visual. One feels connected to Audun—truly concerned for him—and yet, due entirely to Petterson’s writerly sleights of hand, the reader can distinguish between what has become entirely compressed and unified in Auden’s mind: run-of-the-mill teenage angst and real, emotional (and physical) trauma.
Through it all, Petterson allows for a quiet hopefulness, the possibility a better future for Audun. There is resonance in the clichéd assurances of a sympathetic neighbor: “You’re not eighteen all your life,” he tells Audun. “That may not be much of a consolation, but take a hint from someone who’s outside looking in: you’ll get through this.”
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