EW senior writer Anthony Breznican’s first novel, Brutal Youth, hits shelves and e-readers on June 10. As part of the release, we asked Breznican to write about his teen years and how they inspired his coming-of-age debut.
I never liked to fight. Maybe that’s because I was bad at it.
I didn’t like to get beaten up.
One time while riding the bus home in seventh grade, some guys who were getting bored of picking on me decided I might be a good candidate for one of their younger brothers to pulverize. That kid was three or four years younger than I was – and eager to kick my ass for no good reason. When we came to my street, the whole gang got up and walked off the bus, making a little semi-circle on the street corner. I trudged down the aisle behind them with my head down, then stopped short of the door and sat down in the front seat. The driver looked at me. “I’ll get off at the next stop,” I said. The guys on the street corner whooped and screamed with fury as the door hissed shut and I rolled safely away. (I’m not sure why they didn’t beat me up the next day. Maybe they were really bored.)
If I could find a way to get out of a fight, I would take it. Maybe I was a coward, but I also didn’t like the feeling of hitting another person. When you’ve been on the business end of enough fists, you’re not so quick to make one. I’m sure I said tons of mean and cruel things to other students over the years, which is its own form of bullying. But I never beat anyone up.
That’s kind of ironic, because in my new novel, Brutal Youth, I beat up a lot of kids.
NOW THERE’S A TRAGIC WASTE…
Strangely, I spent 18 years trying to grow up and get out. Then I spent the next 20 trying to go back. The book is a dark and twisted coming-of-age tale, about a group of freshmen at a blue-collar Catholic school that’s a haven for ultra-religious kids whose parents want to hide them from the outside world, and delinquents who are too dangerous for public school. Imagine a zoo where all the animals are thrown into the same habitat. (I guess that’s called “the wild.”) The point is, someone’s going to get eaten.
Brutal Youth is a story about kids, but most of the story came to me as an adult, many years removed from those teenage years. Not long after I graduated in 1994, I heard a song by Elvis Costello called “Favourite Hour,” which included the lyric, “Now, there’s a tragic waste of brutal youth …” Those words seemed to be the perfect summation of my high school years. All that resistance, all that fighting, all that conflict with my parents and teachers, and manipulation and menace among the students … All that struggle, all that intensity of emotion could definitely have been put to better use … right?
Brutal Youth started as a collection of fun-loving, troublemaking stories from those glory days, but morphed into something a little heavier for me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that there is no shortage of people willing to step on your face or your throat if it means propping themselves up a rung or two. Much rarer is the person who reaches a hand down the ladder, loosening their own grip, to help you climb up a step.
When I was writing Brutal Youth, it was these people who inspired me – the true friends. The ones who stick their necks out for you.
RISK AND RUTHLESSNESS
Sticking your neck out wouldn’t mean anything, however, if heads didn’t occasionally roll. I had a lot of friends on the bus that day, and any one of them could have said, “Hey, leave the guy alone.” But they didn’t, and I don’t blame them. That’s how you get yourself beaten up. I’m sure there were many times I looked quietly out the window when one of them was in the crosshairs.
There was sanctioned hazing at my high school, and adults considered it fun and games, a good bonding exercise for the newcomers. And it was – when grown-ups were watching. But when they weren’t, it could be savage. Big guys would race across the hall in threes, slamming like wrecking balls into freshmen guys, while girls were forced to perform “beauty contests” for the rowdy upperclassmen in the back of the bus. There were a thousand indignities that would only get worse if you didn’t play along. For some truly unfortunate kids, the worst of our school zeroed in on them with relentless torment. Those kids usually didn’t come back the next year.
But as we got older, we got braver. They say “it gets better,” but we also got better. (Believe it or not, one of those guys who hassled me on the bus went on to become one of my best friends. Swear to God.) True friends, you never forget – even decades later. You remember when they threw their arms around you after your girlfriend or boyfriend dumped you. They called foul when some teacher with a grudge decided to make a lesson out of you in front of the class. They stood in front of the bully who was ready to throw a punch, and said, “You’ll have to go through me first.”
Those are the people who prevent you from becoming one of the bullies. Those are the people who make sure your armor never gets so thick that you can’t feel anything for anyone else.
NEVER-ENDING GROWING PAINS
That doesn’t stop when you get older. As adults, we all know people who abuse their influence and power and mistreat others to purge toxins from their own psyches. And you don’t stop being vulnerable just because you get a diploma and become old enough to vote and buy cigarettes. We all have holes in our hearts, and that’s where the cruelest bullies in the world dump their anger. Those are the buttons they push. The triggers they pull. It’s how they hurt us, harden us, and get us to hurt others.
The characters in Brutal Youth all have something missing from their lives. I think we all do. What I learned while writing the book is that you can’t find those things on your own, and no amount of fighting will help you recover them either.
What you need are friends to help you look.
For more: find Brutal Youth on Goodreads.