In the new novel Brutal Youth (available today), a clip-on tie is an unlikely source of paralyzing embarrassment and internalized agony. The character who’s feeling the clip-on’s force is Peter Davidek, a slightly introverted high school freshman entering Saint Michaels, a private institution where the faculty and authoritative clergymen are working through financial issues and the building’s physical deterioration while the students are engulfed in fully sanctioned class warfare. With the support of the school’s teachers and higher-ups, each Saint Michaels senior gets his or her own freshman to haze—meaning, life at Saint Michaels can be hellish for the younger students. It’s especially taxing for Peter and his new best friend, Noah Stein, a rebellious troublemaker whose toughness stems from a traumatic family experience, one that’s exploited by the seniors in one of the novel’s most gut-wrenching scenes.
Not that there’s a shortage of emotionally trying moments in Brutal Youth. Anyone who’s endured through high school should relate to its characters’ plights. In no designated order of kill-me-now devastation, there’s the pain of one-sided first love, the inferiority derived from being a scrawny freshman flanked by hulking seniors, teachers who don’t seem to care about your personal dilemmas, the need to seem cooler than you actually think you are, and, of course, being a Catholic school boy whose inability to elegantly dress himself leaves him stuck in clip-on tie hell.
Dexterously balancing tones and genres, first-time novelist Anthony Breznican taps into both the horrors and joys of being a wide-eyed, green teenager. Reading Brutal Youth is akin to putting one’s self through an emotional gauntlet; it’s often bleak and entirely dramatic, yet there’s an underlying sweetness to Breznican’s characters. Using humor to his advantage, Breznican undercuts Brutal Youth’s heavy depictions of school bullying by surrounding the trauma with youthful optimism. Kids get hurt and, worse, hurt themselves. But whenever Peter, Stein, and their immature peers are cracking wise or simply shooting the shit, Brutal Youth transfers the freedom and naiveté of young-adult living with an engaging naturalism.
Breznican’s literary debut bridges the gap between YA and adult-geared fiction, which has been especially polarizing as of late thanks to the monster success of The Fault in Our Stars. For some critics, books about teenagers aren’t as worthwhile as something written by the likes of Jonathan Franzen or Joyce Carol Oates. Brutal Youth, though, defies that prejudice. The author’s strength: He understands that the best teen-driven stories are universally appealing. Even the grumpiest and most pretentious of adults were once kids, and Brutal Youth’s older characters, ranging from a swag-heavy priest to a mean-spirited teacher, reflect that self-aware nostalgia. They’re just as well-drawn and intriguing as the youngsters.
Currently a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly, Breznican completed Brutal Youth whenever he could find downtime away from covering the Academy Awards beat, writing profiles on actors and filmmakers, and hustling around Hollywood as one of the industry’s most respected film journalists. Combine that tirelessness with the fact that it’s Breznican’s first work of long-form fiction and Brutal Youth is all the more impressive.
Here, Breznican discusses how his own Catholic school upbringing informed Peter Davidek’s world, how adults bully each other as much as teenagers, and the importance of leaving readers unable to pin down a story’s genre-specific M.O.
The first thing that attracted me to Brutal Youth is its Catholic school setting, since I’m a former Catholic kid myself—though, thankfully, my experience wasn’t nearly as traumatic as what happens in the book. I’m hoping yours wasn’t either?
I wouldn’t say my experience was the same. The book, as you pointed out, is much darker. It’s fiction, not autobiography, although there are autobiographical elements in there. I tried to capture what growing up feels like. When you get older, it’s easy to look back and say, “Why was I so upset that this girl didn’t like me? Why did I have a huge falling out with my friends? Why was I sent to the principal’s office?” [Laughs.]
It seems like a joke now; even if you get only a couple years distance away from that, it seems frivolous, but at the time, that stuff is heavy, and it can eat at you. Not having a lot of friends can really bury you. That feeling of isolation and confusion is the most terrifying thing in the world because you’re just getting into your legs—you’re wobbly and vulnerable. I wanted to tell a story that captured that feeling, even if you are far away from it. To do that, I amped up the crisis, the danger, and the menace.
Is this story something that’s been bouncing around in your head since high school, or is it a product of that years-removed, looking-back mentality?
Well, my real high school experience was the seedling that grew into this story. It just grew into a very twisted tree. [Laughs.] I would tell my girlfriend, who’s now my wife, war stories of antics and troubles I got into with my friends, and I did get into a lot of trouble as a kid. My wife would say, “Maybe you should try to write some of those things down.”
As I started writing my personal experiences down, I realized that those anecdotes needed the framework of fiction. That really gives it a forward thrust and definition. I don’t want to identify everything that’s real in the book and what’s fake, partly because I want to protect people’s privacy. One thing I will say, though, is that the priest in the book, Father Mercedes, is based on a real guy. The real guy’s name was Father Ben, and he was stealing from the church. There was always a lot of criticism that we kids were siphoning money and we were the sort of weight around the parish’s ankle, when in reality it was the man running the show.
The idea of a high school that allows hazing is fascinating. Growing up in New Jersey, that’s certainly not something I’ve ever heard about.
That’s a real thing from my real school, actually. They had a “hazing picnic." In fact, in the book the location of the picnic takes place in the real place where our hazing activities took place. The difference was, it was maybe a month-and-a-half or two months of hazing in real life. A freshman would come in and he or she would get assigned a senior, so that part’s also real. You would just pray for a merciful one, someone who wasn’t going to torture you too much.
In the book, there’s a section where they do this cannonball thing, where three guys would go down the hallway and two guys shove the third guy into a freshman and pin them into the locker—that was a real thing. I remember being terrified by that. As a grown man, you look at seniors in high school now and they look young, they look like kids, but when you’re a freshman looking in the other direction, seniors seem like these Goliaths, the older girls are stunning and taller than you and intimidating. [Laughs.]
I was terrified about how I’d fit in. You go from being at the top of the food chain in 8th grade to being a minnow again. That was scary enough, and then you find out, “By the way, these guys are allowed to pick on you—in fact, it’s encouraged.” The teachers and administrators would try to make it so that it wasn’t too horrible, but they seemed to think that this idea of hazing, which they called “initiation,” was good as a bonding exercise for the younger kids and a way for the older kids to let off some steam. And, in a way, that might be true. If you’re looking at it from the adults’ perspective, you’d think, oh, it’s just kids goofing around, right? The problem is, when you’re that vulnerable as a freshman, even if it’s not malicious, it’s embarrassing. If you are, like me, prone to resist that sort of thing, that makes it worse, because now you’re not “fun,” you’re not part of the team. Then, feelings begin to harden against you. You can dig yourself in deep by trying to stand up for yourself, or you can play along and feel humiliated.
I ended up getting this sweet, smart, and sophisticated senior girl as my mentor. She didn’t do anything too terrible to me, but the day of the hazing picnic, I thought, great, I’m going to skate here and get off totally easy. Then she pulls out these old lady clothes and says, “Well, you’re going to be dressing up as a bag lady for the talent show.” [Laughs.] “You’ll be begging people for change.” Now, I’m comfortable enough with myself today that if you asked me to put on a dress to act in a play or something, I’d do and it’d seem like a joke. But at the time, that was mortifying. I don’t even think she meant to cause any of that distress.
That’s another thing I tried to do with Brutal Youth, to say that things bother you as a kid and adults don’t even know it. You bottle that up, and that pressure is what turns a person from somebody who means well and wants to be a good kid and help other people into somebody who has a hardened soul.
Setting the novel in 1991 is an interesting move. High-schoolers didn’t have social media at their disposal. For kids today, Facebook and Twitter are outlets for them to voice whatever’s bothering them or whatever makes them happy. There’s a window into their world, whereas back in 1991, high school was your own private hell.
Exactly. That era, the early ‘90s, was the end of a certain way of growing up. The only kid I knew, even among the rich kids, who had a cell phone when I was a senior in high school was this one guy who was a volunteer EMT. [Laughs.] There wasn’t this kind of self-surveillance that happens now, where you declare where you are, who you are, and who you’re with on your Facebook page, or your Tumblr, or your Twitter account. It was easier to lead a secret life. After that, things changed.
The question is, did things change for the better? There are a lot of people who say cyber bullying is even worse than the kind that used to happen. At least in the old days, when you went home, you could get away from it, but now you go home, pull your shades down, and are totally alone in your room yet there on your phone or on your laptop someone’s taunting you. That leaves a mark.
In some ways it’s a little better now because adults, parents, and people in the position to change things can see it and know what’s happening. We act so appalled, but this has always been happening—now there’s just proof. It’s hard growing up no matter what age you are what time in history you’re living in.
These days, with the heightened awareness of bullying in high schools and school shootings, that pro-hazing idea explored in Brutal Youth seems like it couldn’t exist in real life anymore. Do you agree?
It would be a little bit different today, but I do think it could exist today. I don’t know if my old high school still has that hazing tradition. But also you’re right, culturally we’ve turned away from bullying.
The thing that bugs me about it, though, is that bullying exists well beyond high school. It extends well into the world of collegiate academia. Fraternities haze people, and I don’t know whether that’s right or wrong. I guess it’s all a matter of degree. Even in our adult lives, though, there’s bullying and manipulation. I was talking to a woman who works at a talent agency in Los Angeles who said, “Your book reminds me a lot of our Monday morning meetings.” [Laughs.] People are constantly trying to undercut each other. I’ve worked jobs where people are told, “That editor is hazing you—he or she is giving you a hard time because you’re new." They’re asserting dominance.
It’s a human thing. We are all very conscious of where we stand on the pecking order, and some of us use our power to put our foot on the head below us and push down. That’s where we find strength, and how we feel solid in our position; others reach down and help that person up, and that’s where they find strength. You see that in the workplace, you see it, sadly, in families, particularly bad families where the mother or father takes their aggression out on their kids, or they’re afraid to let their kid beat them at golf because that, in some way, will make them seem subservient.
More than being an anti-bullying book, I wanted Brutal Youth to be about the question of, what are the origins of cruelty? Why does one person step on someone else and why does another person help them up? You’d think it’d be, “Oh, well that person was treated badly so he treats other people badly,” but my experience is that’s not always the case.
My theory is that if anyone ever helps you, you remember that. A lot of people end up as adults with no one ever helping them—they fight the whole way, and once they get to that higher position, they’re not going to help anyone else.
It’s a question that isn’t really answered in my head, but those are the interesting ones, right?
And Peter Davidek’s feelings of loneliness, isolation, and insecurity never really go away. I’m 32 years old and I still have those feelings, which I also had back when I was a teenager.
Yeah, but you’re an entertainment journalist. If you go on Twitter, entertainment journalists are constantly bullying each other. [Laughs.] They’re sniping at each other, and sometimes justifiably. Just in that one subset, there is a lot of hostility over turf, access, and status. I cover the Oscar beat and there’s a lot of hostility on that beat.
I read all of that Oscar coverage and, yeah, it seems like a war zone among you and your colleagues.
[Laughs.] And why? It’s not a war zone. It’s an awards show—why are we getting so angry about it? I get that it’s good to have feisty debates about it, but, man, feelings get hard fast. I’m sure somewhere in America there’s a small flower shop in some small town that’s near another flower shop and they totally hate each other. The owners are constantly trying to manipulate and undermine each other.
That’s another thing I tried to do with this book. I don’t think that it’s the popular kids and the freaks and geeks—that’s a total misrepresentation of adolescent life. Often, the cheerleaders don’t know that the chess club kids even exist, and if they do, they think they’re these cute organisms. Where the real danger exists is in your own clique. Friends often make the worst enemies.
It seems tricky to write through the eyes of a 14-year-old kid and getting yourself back in the headspace to make it come off as natural, not forced or out-of-touch. If you were to visit a high school and record conversations, it wouldn’t always sound as refined as it does on the page, so there’s a balance of realism and fictionalization you need to pull off in order to make a book like this work. Was that a challenge for you?
I don’t know if I’ve been blessed or cursed in this way, but as my hair has grayed and my body has become stooped and decrepit, somehow my brain has remained totally in sync with a 14-year-old’s. [Laughs.]
I know what you mean, though. You don’t want it to be clever since kids of that age aren’t always that clever. Whenever I had the characters making jokes, I tried keeping the jokes a little dopey. From what I remember with my friends, and this still happens now that we’re in our mid-30s, one dumb joke leads to the next and you almost work yourself up into a hysteria where everything is funny. When the characters in my book joke around, there’s not much wit—they’re just making dumb, dopey jokes. Their insults sometimes are pretty crude.
One thing I remember a lot about being a teenager is how much people swore, how much cursing there was on the school bus. Like, did David Mamet script the dialogue for my high school bus rides? [Laughs.] My wife read the book and said, “Man, these kids swear a lot,” and I remembered how cursing in high school was freeing because there wasn’t anyone there monitoring you. There’s a lot of harsh language in the book, but that was just the parlance of the times.
It’s a tough book to describe to people. It’s funny at times and then other times it’s really bleak. You establish that really well in the prologue, where there’s a bullied kid standing on the school’s rooftop and throwing items down at kids and teachers, harming them, but you undercut the tension with some great moments of levity. Did you set out to write an unclassifiable story?
That was absolutely my intention. That’s the kind of storytelling I like, the kind that combines genres and combines tones. I love shows like Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad, shows that take really dark and serious moments and then there’s that comedy where something is so dark that it becomes a little bit absurd, and, as a result, funny. That, I feel, is a real feeling. If you were ever in real trouble as a kid, it almost becomes like a farce. You’ve sunk so deep, the situation is so desperate, that all you can do is laugh.
I’m really glad to hear you say that you found parts of Brutal Youth to be funny, because it was really meant to be funny at times, even if some of the situations are a little sad.
Speaking more about the prologue, the feeling I got from it was an uncertain anticipation, a kind of dread.
Exactly, I wanted you to say, “Damn, where will things go from here?” I didn’t want you to feel safe or know where things are going. I hope you keep turning pages because you can’t quite guess where everything’s heading. Especially with that prologue—it begins, as you know, with this kid going up on the roof, after being pushed around a lot and snapping, and starts pushing over these statues because he wants to hurt the people down below.
Our hero, Peter Davidek, the kid we’re going to follow throughout the novel, is there visiting on his first day. I wanted to show that he’s a really good kid. He’s safe at the edge of the parking lot, yet he runs back to help a wounded kid. The whole point of that prologue is, how does a kid go from being fundamentally decent and willing to help into that kid on the roof who wants to cause the pain? That’s Davidek’s journey, and we don’t know by the end if he’s going to become that kid on the roof or not.
Hopefully by the time we close out the story, you see how a person becomes twisted, but there’s also room for redemption. So I hope it’s a hopeful story.
It definitely is, and that was the biggest surprise for me. It’s like how True Detective’s optimistic ending was the show’s most unexpected twist of all.
Brutal Youth’s ending is bittersweet. I’ve read some of the book’s early reviews that say it has a dark and unhappy ending. I wouldn’t call it “unhappy." There are definitely unhappy endings for some of the characters you like, but there’s also a question there: Is what happens to them so bad in comparison to the people who have to stay at the school? I wanted it to be a little bit melancholy. When I look back on those days of my own life, I wonder if I’d want to go back there and relive it, but there’s also a lot I wouldn’t want to relive, yet we feel that draw, don’t we? Whether it was good or bad, wouldn’t it be nice to just go back and change a few things?
We’ve talked about how scary growing up can be, but, man, there’s such beauty to it. There’s a freedom we have at that age that we yearn for as we get older. I hope that the book captures that, too, the fun-loving, almost caper-like quality to being a kid. You can have some good times if you can get away with it.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)