Three freshmen must join forces to survive at a troubled, working-class Catholic high school with a student body full of bullies and zealots, and a faculty that’s even worse in Anthony Breznican’s Brutal Youth.
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 contents of Colin Vickler’s black bag had been a curiosity at St. Mike’s for months. People began noticing the unusual glass clanking sound around the start of the school year, but whenever teachers had taken him aside and forcibly searched him, they never found anything. The rumors got more and more elaborate: It was a portable methamphetamine lab. Or, maybe was he smuggling bomb chemicals. Sickening theories arose: He carried his own urine in jars, filling them at school and keeping them on a shelf in his bedroom. But for what dark purpose could any of this be hap- pening: perversion, paranoia, witchcraft?
Colin “Clink” Vickler didn’t have a single friend at St. Mike’s, though he had been a student there for three years. As a freshman, he was a lightning rod for the ninety-two-year-old school’s hazing tradition, a yearlong, allegedly good-natured teasing of new students, which the school tacitly approved of as a “fun” bonding exercise for the newcomers. Vickler had carried a disproportionate amount of the torment, with even his fellow freshmen bullying him, usually to impress or distract their own oppressors.
When he was as a sophomore, the teasing hadn’t stopped. In one of the worst instances, a group of seniors ambushed him in the bathroom one day, held his arms, and snagged the rim of his underwear, ripping them off from underneath his pants and tearing into his groin. While he rolled in agony, someone went outside and ran the tattered threads up the school flagpole. For weeks, Vickler’s classmates saluted him and hummed “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
It wasn’t the beautiful and so-called popular kids who did it to him, though they may have been laughing on the periphery. Everyone was, basically. The boys who had attacked him in the bathroom were the most worthless, aimless, and friendless in the school. The cheerleaders, basket- ball players, theater kids, and science geeks (among countless other cliques at St. Mike’s) all picked on kids within their own circles, venting their frustrations on weaker versions of themselves. Sometimes the cliques turned on each other, but that was rare. When one group did need an- other to beat up on, they all tended to turn on the same niche—the losers. Clink just happened to be the one the losers picked on.
He became a junior, but even with upperclassman status, the teasing never stopped. The worst were the girls laughing at him, girls he thought were cute. And he was no help for himself—dropping his eyes, muttering, not clever enough to return the insults, not strong enough to fight back. It never stopped. It never would.
Vickler’s only protection was to hide.
1. I love reading coming of age stories, and I find it really interesting that you changed the original concept so that the characters end up “going bad”. What was your inspiration for this twist?
I wanted to tell a war story that showed even if the “good guys” don’t always win, there’s victory in just having been good. Doing the right thing often comes with a tremendous cost, but being cutthroat and duplicitous and cruel always seems to come with rewards, doesn’t it? At least in the short term.
I saw Brutal Youth as a tragedy (lightened by some absurdist, demented elements) about getting tough and trying to protect yourself without destroying who you are deep down. I’d argue that some of the characters who seem to have unhappy endings actually escape with their hearts and souls intact.
2. Which POV did you find easiest to write, and which was the hardest to write?
Hardest to write, believe it or not, was the main character, a freshman boy named Peter Davidek. I’ve got a lot in common with this kid. We’re both nice Slovak boys from Western Pennsylvania, but he has an innocence about him that I worked hard to capture without making it seem like naiveté. His character arc is tricky. He’s someone who is fundamentally decent, who knows right from wrong, but gradually hardens and becomes more cynical and angry. I wanted readers to see him as someone who’s done asking for help but is still a rebel for the right cause.
Easiest to write… Ms. Bromine, this unhinged guidance counselor who was once a popular student at the school but now deeply resents the students who have replaced her in her kingdom. She’s over-the-top in the way your nastiest teacher was, but these people truly exist. Have you ever just lost your temper, really blown a gasket, and then sunk into a kind of sadness and embarrassment? She’s on that roller coaster every day. Writing her was actually cathartic because it sweated all the venom out of me.
3. Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what type of music?
I do! Almost every major character had a song or two that would help me get inside their heads. For Peter Davidek, it was Elvis Costello’s “Favourite Hour,” which includes the line that gave the book its title: “Now there’s a tragic waste of brutal youth …” It’s a lovely but sad song. His best friend, Noah Stein, is a fighter — ready to throw down over the slightest unfairness. He’s brave in a way that’s almost self-destructive. Listening to Nirvana’s “Even In His Youth” always put me in that mindset. It’s a potent mix of fury and insecurity.
Lorelei Paskal is the third member of this trio of freshmen friends, and Gillian Welch’s “Look at Miss Ohio” was her song. It has the lyric, “I wanna do right … but not right now.” The mood of that song, playful and mournful at the same time, really captures her.
Finally, I think Pink Floyd’s “Another Bring in the Wall: Part II” could be the alma mater for the school I created for the novel. “Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!” That whole album is full of the destructive and vindictive behaviors that we like to pretend adults stop doing when they grow up. But not everybody actually grows up, now do they?
4. If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?
John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. It’s an amazing novel about the Joad family, about sacrifice and survival, but it’s also got a gorgeous short story collection embedded within it. The first time I read it was in high school, and I was haunted by the chapter about the turtle crossing the road — how some people tried to avoid it, how some tried to hit it with their cars for the hell of it, and how others tried to help. We’ve all been that turtle at different times, right? But we’ve also been the ones trying to hurt or rescue it, too. That 10th grade lit class has never left me.
5. The cover of Brutal Youth is extremely powerful. Do you feel that it represents the book and the message that you’re trying to convey to the reader?
I got very lucky to land a designer as talented as Rob Grom for the cover. School uniforms suggest politeness, control, a certain harmlessness. They stuff you into those outfits to suppress expression, enforce conformity, and tamp down any roiling adolescent hormones. I love the image of all that emotion literally searing a hole through the fabric and turning a blazer into an actual blaze.