A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (June 17, 2014). Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted.
Anthony Breznican’s Brutal Youth is at first reminiscent of The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier’s classic young-adult novel of bullying in a Catholic high school, but it soon establishes itself as a more broadly-focused–and darkly funny–fiction debut.
It’s 1991, and St. Michael the Archangel High School in suburban Pittsburgh is in decline in every possible way: the building is crumbling, enrollment is dwindling, and after a frequently-bullied student snaps and terrorizes the campus one spring morning, the parish pastor has stepped up his not-so-secret campaign to have the school shut down by the end of next year. Father Mercedes intends to make St. Michael’s principal, Sister Maria, pay for allowing the culture of student-on-student harassment–culminating in the annual Hazing Day picnic–that may have fostered the outburst; for her part, the principal believes that the school’s hazing tradition actually fosters class morale. The cliquishness and jockeying for status that can be found at any high school are ramped up when the environment seems to sanction them, and at St. Michael’s, where some faculty and staff are returned graduates still living out their adolescent dramas, they’re not confined to the students.
Peter, Noah, and Lorelei meet on the first day of their freshman year at St. Michael’s. While they soon unite to support each other against bullies of all stripes, they won’t be able to hold together for long. Over the course of the year, each will be ostracized; by spring, one will rise as a school hero, one will find sympathetic acceptance for all the wrong reasons, and one will end up in a place far worse than St. Michael’s.
Breznican leavens the bleakness of Brutal Youth’s premise with sharp, darkly comic dialogue that feels authentic to his well-drawn characters, particularly the adolescents. This coming-of-age novel is fast-moving, unsettling, and blends sympathy and satire with surprising effectiveness.
Thanks to Macmillan Audio for providing an excerpt from the audiobook, read by Matthew Brown.
With a plunging reputation and enrollment rate, Saint Michael’s has become a crumbling dumping ground for expelled delinquents and a haven for the stridently religious when incoming freshman Peter Davidek signs up. On his first day, tensions are clearly on the rise as a picked-upon upperclassmen finally snaps, unleashing a violent attack on both the students who tormented him for so long, and the corrupt, petty faculty that let it happen. But within this desperate place, Peter befriends fellow freshmen Noah Stein, a volatile classmate whose face bears the scars of a hard-fighting past, and the beautiful but lonely Lorelei Paskal —so eager to become popular, she makes only enemies.
To even stand a chance at surviving their freshmen year, the trio must join forces as they navigate a bullying culture dominated by administrators like the once popular Ms. Bromine, their embittered guidance counselor, and Father Mercedes, the parish priest who plans to scapegoat the students as he makes off with church finances. A coming-of-age tale reversed, Brutal Youth follows these students as they discover that instead of growing older and wiser, going bad may be the only way to survive.
“The kid had taken a lot of punishment over the years, so he had much to give back.
“A steel hatch on the roof of St. Michael the Archangel High School shuddered, then burst open, and the boy crawled out and collapsed against the gritty tarpaper surface, kicking the lid shut again with one sock-covered foot. He wore only his uniform gray slacks and a wide-open button-down shirt, streaked with blood that wasn’t his. A black canvas book bag hung over one shoulder, swinging back and forth as he scrambled to his knees. He pressed his weight against the closed hatch to stifle the hollering and pandemonium rising from beneath it.
“Next to the steel hatch was a bucket, steaming with hot tar. The janitor had been using it to seal sections of loose shingle that had been leaking water into the school during every springtime rainstorm. A grubby tar mop leaned against the bucket. The boy shifted his heavy bag and scooped up the mop, wedging it between the handles of the hatch, locking it shut. Then he fled back across the flat roof toward the ghostly concrete statues lining the edge.
“The row of saints had stood watch over St. Michael’s for as long as anyone alive could remember. Thomas, the doubter; Joseph, the foster father; Anthony, finder of lost things; Jude, devotee to the hopeless; Francis of Assisi, the lover of nature, who had a small concrete bird in his outstretched hand, and a real drip of birdshit on his concrete head. At the center archway of the ledge high above the school’s main entrance stood an even larger statue of a warrior angel, St. Michael himself, wings spread and sword raised against the satanic serpent being squashed beneath his foot.
“The boy on the roof was named Colin Vickler. Not that it mattered. This was the end. This was good-bye. There was nowhere else to hide.”