I Refuse
Per Petterson
Don Bartless

Graywolf Press
My man's a garbage man
He drives a garbage truck
He smells like garbage all the time.

Someday in future life
I'll be his garbage wife
I'll smell like garbage all the time.

--- ΛΣΣ Sorority Song

Tommy's father is a garbage man --- called a "dustman" here; and, presumably, smells like garbage all the time. Tommy is twelve or thirteen and it ain't the smell that gets his goat. No, it's his father kicking him and his sisters in the ass whenever he feels like it. Which is often.

It hurts, it bruises, it peels the skin off, and does not make for happy campers. Nor, in this case, readers.

In addition the old man once gets so miffed at Tommy that he not only kicks him around the living room, he throws him into the walls and over the furniture; this causes Tommy to get steamed up.

Why the fit? Because the boy had the temerity to ask papa Berggren how come he didn't go to work on that particular day.

When he isn't throwing his kids around the old bastard is throwing garbage around because that's his job. Get it? --- "I REFUSE."

He works as "a dustman" there in Oslo. He is also apparently built on the general lines of a fire hydrant (thus his throwing ability). He seems to have the general personality of one as well.

§   §   §

Sometime ago we were smitten with Petterson's Out Stealing Horses which was his first best-seller. In our review, we wrote

    Out Stealing Horses is timeless, good, filled with wonder; too good, by far, to be put down easily --- or easily forgotten.

Then came I Curse the River of Time which we found a little listless:

    Unfortunately, most of River seems to be wandering around, flooding here and there, not sure of where the banks are supposed to be, not even sure if it will ever reach the sea like a good river should.

I suppose we were getting up to our knees in Per Petterson, because he can be a startling writer. We certainly pay him our full attention (which we never possibly do for Oates, or her artistic peer E. L. James, or Nelson DeMille).

The recent It's Fine by Me, like Petterson's previous novels, lacked what we had come to think of as "reader abuse." We had reviewed several recent novels in which the authors delight in abusing us: another knife in the gut, slamming children against the walls, throwing them out the window ... decimating whole families in exquisitely awful gory detail. We suggested that in Peterson's novels, when violence makes its rare appearance, "the very paucity of cruelty seems to double the gut-crunching effect on the reader."

    It becomes all the more believable and all the more awful because it is delivered with such authorial restraint.

§   §   §

Over the years, Peterson hadn't foundered, at least up to now.

Alas, I Refuse manages to bend if not break the reader: we could barely make it through the first chapter. Tommy, at age thirteen, is getting pissed at being on the wrong side of these regular kick-boxing contests: getting bruised on his backside, being the family football slammed repeatedly over the goal-posts of life.

After his most recent violent encounter with dad, he goes upstairs, gets his baseball bat from under his bed, and comes downstairs to slam it against the old bastard's "kicking leg" so "his ankle was bent at an unheard-of angle, an angle never seen."

Junior then falls to his knees, holds onto the old man's head, and says "Does it hurt, Dad,"

    and then I said, "Daddy, Daddy does it hurt a lot?"

All this mauling!

This ferocity doesn't do much for the plot, because after his leg gets clobbered, the old man just disappears and Tommy and his sisters are sent off to live with neighbors who have more interesting things to do than punting their kids across the room.

§   §   §

Enter Jim, Tommy's buddy. We get to see the two of them going through the exuberant rites of puberty, having fun doing so --- talking tough and being inchoate and finally living a spectacular ice-skating scene, where "The moon was mirrored on the ice, and the ice looked as solid as it was."

    It was a night of blue ice, minus ten degrees, and the moon lit up parts of the rocky hill behind the lake and drew dark lines down where the ravines ran from the top to the far bank. A fir tree leaned over the lake casting crooked shadows across the ice. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. Everything was still. They stopped for a moment in the snow by the bank and gazed at what lay in front of them.

"Jim turned to Tommy and said:

"You could get religious for less."

"You're already religious." Tommy said.

Jim: "Not so much any longer, in fact. I'm a socialist. I'm for a classless society."

And I'm thinking hunh? When I was learning to be puerile, I think that if one of my buddies had said something about the 'classless society' to me, I probably would have kicked him out over the ice and gone off to find somebody less dialectic to do my skating with. Do fifteen-year-old kids in Norway really say stuff like "I'm for a classless society?" What's this world coming to?

Maybe it's this out-of-date class consciousness that screws up his head, because Jim tries to hang himself several times and ends up at the local funny farm, The Bunker. One of the other patients asks Jim why he tried to kill himself and he says

    everything disintegrated, all my thoughts, all my memories, all my words flowed to the corners of my brain, to the margins where things lay forgotten and abandoned, like in empty, disused factory buildings, and didn't want to be reconnected...
--- Richard Saturday
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