Although there were parts of this novel I really enjoyed, I remain ambivalent about Brutal Youth, the painful story of one boy's steadfast time at St. Michael’s School and the consequences he faces for falling in love in a cruel, brutal landscape. The tale may be a well-written tour-de-force, yet reading it quickly became a test of fortitude, an intractability parodying the emotional states of its three central students: Peter Davidek, scarred-cheeked Noah Stein, and their new best friend, Lorelei Paskal.
St. Michael’s might devour other buildings. With its Gothic architecture, primitive battle fortifications and creepy Colin Vickler, who looks like a “pale-skinned, prospect-less virgin” ( weird, psychotic and even dangerous), the school is a perfect setting for a series of clashes by the upper-class men who talk and gloat about the only thing that seems to excite them. Utmost on their minds is the ritual of welcoming freshmen by making a sport of them.
As “not so innocent” Peter, Noah and Lorelei are thrust into this tepid stew, they find it easier to be afraid than angry. Against this background stands self-centered Father Mercedes, the parish’s longtime pastor and a son of the school himself who wants to sabotage St. Michael’s at every turn. Hungry for tuition dollars, the school has begun to collect a small number of students kicked out of public school for violence drugs, sex and “asserted acts of delinquency.” The number of devout Catholic parents is also increasing in a landscape where “tradition has suddenly turned into a form of sanctioned bullying.”
Ill-prepared for the rigors in this medieval-like institution, Peter and Noah’s upbringing offers little preparation for their new situation. Given the life-altering exchange of their environment, it’s not surprising that the boys will clash with “Asshole Face” and Sandmouth, the lowest of the upperclassmen who seem to have a lot to prove—and also with Claudia the pretty redheaded senior who has various secrets to share.
Weaving the characters lives into each other, Breznican works their dramatic evolution, conveying both their exhilarations and their fears. While Father Mercedes enlists innocent Sarah to help him collect the ammunition needed to expose Sister Maria (the school’s principal) and sabotage the fallacy that is “the noble old St Michael’s,” Sarah herself becomes a victim of hurtful name-calling. Peter becomes besotted with Claudia while resolving that Lorelei will be Noah’s girl. Of course, there’s always some “fringe-dweller” or “perpetual loser” with lots to prove who is desperate to make a reputation.
Much of what happens borders on the ridiculous, which would be fine if the book was narrated as a type of spoof or even a Hardy Boys adventure, but instead the events are presented as a macabre, realistic account of what actually happened in high school (none of this ever happened in my school). Eventually, Peter and Noah set up a situation where the students participate in something akin to the gladiator fights of ancient Rome. Huge, blatant metaphors creep out of St. Michael’s flooded corridors, and the freshmen’s actions become dictated by their fears. Hazing day is on the horizon, and many of the kids are going to be exposed by the secrets entwined in Claudia’s scandalous notebook.
Perhaps the novel would have worked better with a much tighter, shorter narrative (it needed to be edited by about a hundred pages). What starts out as a duplicitous page-turner soon descends into a pantomime of heroics and villainy. The last third of the book was such implausible nonsense that I lost patience with it and skimmed to the end.