We sure do love our high school novels, don’t we? I’m not talking about books for young adults (though BRUTAL YOUTH, which we’ll be discussing in a moment, certainly could be read by the YA market). No, I’m referring to books about high school. Every several years or so, along comes a coming-of-age novel set in those four years between elementary school and university.
THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE by Evan Hunter comes to mind, as does FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH by Cameron Crowe, and, oh yeah, CARRIE by Stephen King. I know, I know, everybody remembers the latter as a book about a girl whose nascent psychic powers were unleashed on a fateful prom night. But it’s about high school, my friends, and we all know at least five folks who would have done the same thing if they’d had the chance and ability. There’s also UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE by Bel Kaufman and...well, I’ll stop there.
You get the idea. Those four years provide plenty of fodder for subject matter, and one of the best in recent memory is the newly published BRUTAL YOUTH by Anthony Breznican. It really will make you appreciate adulthood.
"While it certainly contains elements unique to parochial school, those who remember the passing of their high school years with relief rather than regret will feel the unease and quiet fear dripping off every page."
BRUTAL YOUTH is set at St. Michael the Archangel High School in suburban Pittsburgh primarily during the 1991-92 school year. It costs the variously misguided parents of the attending students a few thousand dollars per year to go there, ostensibly for a Catholic education. However, the roof leaks, the faculty and the student body quietly wage a hundred different wars within and without, and the parish priest (appropriately named “Father Mercedes”) who is tasked with administering the school is embezzling funds. He has a plan to recover the money, but on the school’s grave.
Into this maelstrom come Peter Davidek and Noah Stein, two very different freshman who become friends. The somewhat hapless but good-hearted Davidek and take-no-prisoners Stein soon find themselves all but isolated in the swirling mass of boy-girl politics, freshmen hazing, Hell Week, and a faculty member who wrong-foots them well before the first day of school. There is also Lorelei Paskal, a freshman beauty who has eyes for the innocent Davidek but somehow winds up with Stein, and then must make a choice, though it’s not the one you might think. Davidek finds himself oddly attracted to a mysterious senior beauty who is simultaneously loathed and feared by her classmates by virtue of her apparent limitless knowledge of the sins, errors and omissions of each and all.
Several feuds, petty and otherwise, build throughout the year, threatening to erupt as the semester ends. As the doors of St. Michael’s close for the year, scores are settled and threats are fulfilled, with no one leaving unscathed.
BRUTAL YOUTH is the stuff of quiet nightmare, from its explosive opening during a St. Michael’s Open House to its Graduation Day ending. While it certainly contains elements unique to parochial school, those who remember the passing of their high school years with relief rather than regret will feel the unease and quiet fear dripping off every page. While BRUTAL YOUTH is Breznican’s first novel, hopefully it will not be his last. You’ll remember this one long after you read the last page.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 3, 2014
- Publication Date: June 10, 2014
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 416 pages
- Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
- ISBN-10: 1250019354
- ISBN-13: 9781250019356