What I Was
"H" is off at one of those dotty, cold English "public school." It's known as St. Oswald's. Ninety students, bad food, on the fringes of the icy North Sea.
But there is Finn, a peer, (sixteen or so) working in the village, living in an abandoned fisherman's cottage. Finn is resilient, independent, makes his livelihood from the sea, is agile in a kayak, self-taught, reads history. The ideal kid. H --- solitary dropout of two previous public schools --- stalks Finn, befriends him, and comes, apparently, to love him:
For hours we lay side by side, breathing softly together, watching thin rivulets of water run down the cliffs and into the sea, feeling the world slowly revolve around us as we leaned into each other for warmth --- and for something else, something I couldn't quite name, something glorious, frightening, and unforgettable.
And there you have it, inchoate youth and --- in this case --- unimaginable unrequited love.
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This business of writing about juveniles is a tricky one. It's not all that different from reporting on a newly-discovered primitive tribe out there in the rain forest somewhere: How can you describe people who do not, as a matter of course, live in the thought-set of the rest of us. (A recent Canadian study showed that adolescents share many traits of the certifiably mad.)
Outside of the Hardy boys, Horatio Alger, and even Dickens, there is Young Törless which, in retrospect, is a chilly business. There is Catcher in the Rye where worldly cynicism is given credit for insight; and, then, there is the gold standard, Huck Finn.
Huck Finn! Gadzooks, Doctor. Is this a clue? That the "Finn" in What I Was may be somehow related to that famous tale of a boy, a slave, and a raft drifting down the Mississippi?
I'm not so sure. The present novel lacks something more than Jim or Huck or the great rolling river. "Much to our delight," we are told, one of the classes at St. Oswald's includes "lurid tales of Viking torture and debauchery, our favorite being the blood eagle." It is a procedure whereby a man was cut from behind, and "the live lungs were grasped and pulled backward out of the chest cavity."
The goal of this unimaginable act of brutality was to preserve the victim's life long enough to watch the lungs inflate outside the body like wings.
Holden Caufield this ain't.
The surprise ending of What I Was has elicited some murmurs of half-hearted praise from reviewers (Finn is not what he seems) but for most of us, the thrust of the novel is about as elegant as watching a crab --- Finn's specialty --- being cast upside down on the beach and de-lunged. Like a Viking.--- Irving Spivack