Genre: Literary Fiction
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.
Okay, first things first. Calling a book “young adult” because a protagonist is under the age of 18 is lazy as best, misleading as worst. Yes, this school is set in a high school and the protagonist is under the age of 18. Is this really young adult? Eh. This book is a hard read, and a lot of adults are going to find this a difficult (even the person who recommended it admitted she could only read this book in 50 page chunks) let alone a younger audience. It deals with some heavy topics (abuse, emotional, physical, attempted sexual), attempted suicide and the like. The adults are all awful people and even those ostentatiously on what passes for the good-guy team are all but useless at best, and that’s if you assume that she behaves the way she does because she’s so overwhelmed that she’s kind of shut down. But back to my point – older teen audiences may be able to handle this (I honestly wouldn’t recommend it for anyone under 16, even though the protagonists are 14) but this a very adult read, and I don’t think I’d be giving this book to a teen if you want to communicate an anti-bullying message.
This technically has an anti-bullying theme, but the book is so much of a downer that even at the end of the book, there’s little sense that anything is really going to change after all has been said and done. Oh, the book hints that change is hopefully on the horizon, but this kind of evil that has infected the school makes you wonder if anyone has learned anything, or if the cycle is just going to continue. I vote the later because the biggest anti-bullying stance taken is almost immediately followed by another act of intolerable bullying. It’s not that the students want to stop the bullying, they just want the bullying to happen to them because they already ‘served their time’ so to speak. They’re not unlike members of a frat or a sorority who insists that nothing is wrong with hazing, even after a pledge dies. The adults in power don’t change much by the end, and the one teacher who was even partially good has been driven out of school for reasons that seem dubious at best. There’s simply no reason to believe that anyone has the backbone to actually implement change.
In a lot of ways, this book is hard to like. This book is filled with broken people, miserable and only able to deal with their misery by passing it along. The faculty turns a blind eye to the myriad of hazing that goes on all day, every day, under the guise that it’s just kids being kids and that no harm is being done or because the teachers not-so-secretly hate the students. The local priest in charge of the school is embezzling funds and is constantly trying to find ways to shut the school down to better cover up his embezzlement. Most of the kids come from broken homes, and some of the parents are every bit as bad as the worst of the teachers, if not even worse. It’s no wonder they’re all so messed up. If any of the characters we met in this book make it out into the world as semi-functioning adults it might be considered a miracle, especially since the friendships forged in the book are often just as much a cause of the misery found in this book more than anything else.
I’m honestly at a loss as how to review this. It was well done, but holy hell was it a depressing, lose all faith in humanity, kind of read which makes it hard to recommend. There are definitely people like this in the world, but I just had immensely difficulty in finding the heart in the book, maybe because every time it reared its head it was ruthlessly crushed. In deciding to go with my final rating, I’m going with this: I can’t say I enjoyed it, but it did provoke an emotional response in me and made me think. And that isn’t something to just brush off entirely. I can’t give it a full recommendation, and it’s definitely not everyone’s cuppa, but it’s at least worth picking up at the library or downloading a sample on Kindle and seeing if it’s for you.
Verdict: Borrow it.