Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Book Review: "Brutal Youth" by Anthony Breznican

Some say that the high school years are the best years of your life. Those who say that never attended St. Michael's school. Anthony Breznican's novel, Brutal Youth, essentially chronicles one year—1991—at this Catholic high school, which would make the principal from Lean On Me, the teacher from Dangerous Minds, and the students from Heathers or Mean Girls transfer as quickly as possible.

Peter Davidek has always lived in the shadow of his older brother, Charlie, which isn't a good thing, since Charlie is now persona non grata in their family. But since Charlie went to St. Michael's, their mother wants Peter to attend school there as well. But orientation day for visiting 8th graders is somewhat eventful, when a troubled student snaps, unleashing an attack on fellow students and teachers alike. It falls on Peter and another prospective student, Noah Stein, to rescue a student injured in the attack, even though it means disobeying—and making an enemy of—the school's guidance counselor.

When Peter and Noah begin their freshman year, they quickly realize this isn't just another school. On top of the fact that the school itself is falling apart, and the chapel has taken over the school's gymnasium since the original chapel burnt to the ground, freshmen are like raw meat to the older students. It's not just innocent pranks or teasing—it's all-out abuse, physical and emotional, every day. And the teachers are just as bad as the kids. It's all justified, you see, because when the upperclassmen were freshmen, they were abused, so it's kind of like the circle of life, you know?

Noah, who has been thrown out of schools before, is a take-no-prisoners kind of person, one who doesn't let anyone bother him, although that bravado hides some real emotional vulnerability. He and Peter become an unlikely team against their tormentors, along with fellow student Lorelei Paskal, who charms them both but isn't as successful making friends with her classmates. But as the school year progresses, their relationships with each other and their other classmates are tested by violence, misunderstandings, secrets, and a faculty more than willing to turn their backs on what is happening in the school.

"Everybody's pissed off and wants to f--king hit somebody, but this whole system has only one rule: You can't hurt anyone who can hurt you back."

This is a brutal book, one that truly lives up to its title. I have never seen students, teachers, and parents so relentlessly cruel, petty, and awful, even though Breznican gives you some idea how they got that way. While I loved Peter and Noah's characters, I just found every other character in the book so utterly unappealing and unsympathetic. I had a hard time believing that any school, any administration could be so bad, but then I remembered that the book is set in 1991, a time before Columbine and other incidents of school violence.

This book reminded me of some of my own issues with high school. I definitely wanted to see where Breznican would take the plot, to see if he could continue escalating the cruelty and all-around awfulness of his characters. But as much as this book troubled me and made me angry, I also would love to know what happened next, so I guess the characters stuck with me.

I've seen so many glowing reviews of this book, so if my description intrigues you, I'd encourage you to read it. I can't get the characters out of my head, in a good way. I guess in the end, I'm struck by this quote from the book:

"The things we surrender to when we're young, we keep surrendering to the rest of our lives."

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