It’s Fine By Me
“I don’t want to beat it and I don’t want to leave him here alone, and so I quickly do the only thing I can think of and put my arms around him, pull him close to me and hold him tight. Very tight. . . . Arvid loves his father. It has never occurred to me. . . I don’t know if I dare let him go. If I do, I will feel naked and cold and lost in this world.”
An adolescent awkwardly attempts to console a friend devastated by his father’s humiliation at the hands of young thugs. He is unable to express himself, shocked by the profound expression of love; he is vulnerable, cold and without place in the scheme of things should his ferociously tenuous grasp fail. The voice is Audun Sletten’s, the first person narrator of Per Petterson’s It’s Fine By Me, a coming-of-age story set in Oslo in the late sixties and early seventies. Readers unfamiliar with Petterson should note that this is an early work, written twenty years ago, preceding Out Stealing Horses which won Petterson such deserved praise in 2006. His publisher is releasing translations slowly; the present book is the third issued in the intervening years.
Petterson is an author whose voice immediately opens to a distinctive world – A dark world for the most part in which the chief character most often struggles against family and fate to achieve some sort of respectable life, one that offers a resolution born of resilience..
The author deals elliptically with time, but the foci of the ellipsis anchor the narrative: the death of Audun’s younger brother and the brutality of his terrifying father. His mother puzzles him with her weakness and permissiveness; yet in the end, Audun can accept the man whom she is to marry. He finds extraordinary surrogates, an aged farmer and his wife, who provide the one respite that cushions his wariness.
The sole break in the first person account offers a sudden and disturbing view of the father, ranging as a hunter through the Norwegian woods – a loner, predatory and self-sufficient. His reappearance at disparate times shocks Audun into defensive reaction. Yet he cannot contain the drunken energy (His father has a pistol which he too easily uses.) that this chaotic presence threatens. These scenes are grotesquely unforgettable – a drinking buddy delivers Audun’s father to their home in the bucket of a front loading tractor. Audun retreats as the father rears from his drunken sleep in anger.
Audun’s one friend, Arvid, mentioned above, shares his left wing politics and rebelliousness, demonstrating this in the raising of an outlawed flag in the school yard. The two boys share intrigues and novels, discussing “purple prose” as well as the Vietnam War, and inevitably their dysfunctional families that teeter about them.
Audun’s steady determination, his innate good sense, sees him through the awkwardness that he seems perpetually to court: a terrible beating for the support he gives Arvid, his friendship with an old man to whom he delivers newspapers, his rejection of the advances of a middle-aged woman on that same route.
The novel reaches a hectic peak in the scenes that surround Audun’s work in a printing factory. In the company of his much older workmates, he begins to find a place as he develops real skills in the handling of the dangerous presses.
At every stage, the dialogue, even in translation, is thoroughly convincing. I could not but be engaged by Audun’s daily struggles and the breadth of what should be the narrow compass of his life. One can only wonder at the delicacy of Petterson’s rendering of the pains of coming of age.
I don’t think that there is a “best place to start” if you haven’t read Petterson. The strength of the writing will inevitably lead you from one book to another. He is remarkable indeed.