Pointless cruelty, thy name is high school.
Climbing school’s social ladder is hard enough, particularly while those at the top start dropping things on you. But that social ladder also goes down, way down, through a hole in the earth into a smelly, dank sub-basement where the truly despised dwell. Getting out of there — or even just finding a way to survive without going crazy — that’s the real accomplishment.
“Brutal Youth,” the debut novel by Anthony Breznican, 37, a New Kensington native and Los Angeles-based writer for Entertainment Weekly, takes this well-trod territory to some new places — and some that look awfully familiar. The book will be out Tuesday.
It starts with a boy from the bottom of the heap, atop the crumbling stone roof of St. Michael’s, throwing jars of pilfered lab specimens at his tormentors. This includes most of the Catholic high school’s students, as well incoming freshman Peter Davidek, visiting for the first time.
As it turns out, for Davidek, this qualifies as a good day.
“I’m fascinated by teenagers,” Breznican says. “The person you’re going to be is shaped by those years, from ninth to 12th grade. There are a lot of jerks in the world. Where do they come from? Why are they like this? Why are there so many bastards out there? Why were there so many friends, that I loved like my brother or sister — and so many others who made life miserable?”
Breznican started his writing career in school, writing ghost stories inspired by the horror novels of Stephen King.
To his everlasting amazement, a laudatory quote from King now graces the dust jacket of “Brutal Youth”:
“If you thought high school was hell, has Anthony Breznican got a story for you,” King writes. “Every bully who stalked you, every sadistic teacher who ever terrified you, every stupid prank, every hopeless crush and false friend: They’re all here, along with a few kids who hang together and try to do the right thing in a brutal environment. By turns funny and terrifying, ‘Brutal Youth’ is an unputdownable tour-de-force, a ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ for the 21st century.”
“That’s the kind of thing you don’t even let yourself dare to dream about,” Breznican says. “I took a shot at it. I had interviewed him a few times, on the phone, over the past 10 years, but he didn’t know me or owe me anything. I managed to send him a letter and told him I started writing because I was so blown away by what he could do with words on a page.
“I asked him to read the first five pages of the book, and let me earn every page after that. He’s very generous with new writers. He’s one of those rare people in life, way up the ladder, who reach down to help others.”
The school in “Brutal Youth” is falling apart, literally and figuratively. The parish is perpetually short of cash, and the school survives by taking the hardcases: the damaged, the insolent, the expelled. Even then, it’s not enough. A faction led by the charismatic, chain-smoking priest Father Mercedes conspires to make closure the only option.
It’s set in a very specific time and place, Western Pennsylvania’s Alle-Kiski Valley in the early ’90s.
“I got in trouble a lot (in school), but I don’t feel like I have a score to settle,” Breznican says. “I just wanted to tell a ‘war story’ about being a teenager. I wanted to dial up the weirdness a little. Even in college, just a few years distant, the problems seemed very small — getting sent to the principal’s office, getting embarrassed by a rumor about you, getting dumped. Why was I so worried? But at 15, man, those things are scary. You’re just figuring out what it means to be an adult and have some actual say over your life.
“I really cranked up the hostility that these kids face. Some of it was real, even if I didn’t personally experience it. I hope it feels real. I hope it captures some of the anxiety that kids experience.”
Lots of landmarks and geography should be familiar, but the characters are, for the most part, his own inventions. Except for one.
Father Walter Benz, who died in 1998, stole more than $1 million from his Pittsburgh-area churches, spending it on luxury cars, antique guns and gambling trips.
“Father Mercedes is the only character that I took (from)a real person,” Breznican says. “Here’s this holy dude with ultimate power, who’s also this scam artist. I wanted to create a character who’s the ultimate bully — a villain who you don’t necessarily like, but you’re charmed by him. He was this gritty, down-to-earth guy who drinks, smokes and lived large, a rock star in his neck of the woods. But a bad guy down to his core.”
Breznican chose his hometown as a setting for a very specific reason.
“I love Pittsburgh and Western PA and yearn for it every day,” he says. “I have a dim view of humanity overall, but I love my hometown. I’d cross that bridge every day between Natrona Heights and New Ken. To me, it’s like this artery where life would pass back and forth — there was always business to be had on the other side. I think it’s a beautiful location. The final scene takes place there. Anywhere I felt like ‘visiting,’ I’d make up some action there.”
Breznican’s 20th high-school reunion is coming up, for St. Joseph’s High School in Natrona Heights. Yes, there are a few similarities with the school in the book.
“My school (in the book), St. Michael’s, is a pretty disastrous place,” he says. “I’d say I cast my old high school in the role of St. Michael. I borrowed the location. I miss my hometown. It was a way to spend time in the Valley while 2,000 miles away. But I wouldn’t want people to think that my school was this maniacal.”