Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Review of Steve Brezenoff's Brooklyn, Burning

An editor at a writing conference told a story about a librarian from Florida who decided not to purchase a new picture book about snow. When questioned about her decision, she laughed and said something like, “These kids live in Florida. They don’t need to know anything about snow.” The editor paused for effect then asked the audience, “Isn’t that the reason those kids should have a book like that?” Well, yes, of course, everyone agreed, and we all smugly mocked the misguided cheap librarian in our heads. (Okay, maybe I was the only one who did that. Sorry.)

The point is that it's a good thing for kids to be exposed to the unfamiliar. The strange. The uncomfortable. The different. Different kinds of weather. Different kinds of people. Different kinds of worlds. I know a lot of people would disagree with me. Maybe kids in Florida don’t really need to read books about snow. And maybe sweet, sheltered, upper middle class teens don’t need to read books about homeless, thrown-away, gender-confused kids in New York City. Maybe we should all just stick to reading books that mirror our own realities.

If that’s true, there won’t be many readers of Steve Brezenoff’s new novel, Brooklyn, Burning. I read this book five days ago and I still can’t wrap my mind around it; so much of it—from how it’s written to the subject matter—stands out and has stuck with me.

Let’s start with the point of view. It’s practically in second person, something I’ve rarely seen before except in some weirdo experimental fiction I read in grad school. A reminder: first person POV uses I. Third person uses he or she. Second uses you. That point of view just isn't used that often in fiction. I said practically second person though, which is probably not an official term. The main character, Kid, starts the narrative the way one might begin a letter. (And in a way, this novel is a love letter.) “You probably don’t remember it like I do,” Kid says, and goes on to remind You, whom the reader learns is a person named Scout. This POV could seem like a gimmick, a quirky way to tell a story, but it quickly becomes apparent that it’s a necessity because the genders of Kid and Scout are never revealed. They could easily be two boys or two girls. Or one of each. This isn’t a clever gimmick either. It’s one of the major themes of the book. That maybe gender doesn’t matter all that much in the ultimate scheme of life.

A lot of people would probably disagree with me about that too. But whatever. Let’s move on and talk about setting. I have never been to Brooklyn, but after reading this book, I feel like I’ve lived there. The few blocks where this story takes place come alive in all their smelly, noisy glory. There’s a bar. There’s music. There’s homeless people. Everything seems real. Nothing is stereotypical.

The structure of the book is cool. The narrative shifts back and forth in time between two summers in the life of Kid. The first summer there was a fire in a warehouse where a lot of homeless teens lived. Kid’s best friend may or may not have died in the fire. Kid may or may not have started it. The second summer Kid meets Scout, but is clearly still tormented by the past. There’s a mystery at the heart of this story. What really happened last summer? How was Kid involved? Why is Kid living on the street in the first place?

Now I need to give a shout out to the writing style. There are a lot of books out there that are plot-oriented and fast-paced. The language is used only to keep the story moving. Then there are the stories where you know the author is showing off her writing skills. In these purposefully literary-styled novels, the language tends to interfere, keeping the reader from falling into the story. Instead you’re stopping periodically to dissect a particularly long sentence or puzzling out a beautiful but unnecessary metaphor. Steve Brezenoff has pulled off the rare feat of creating a literary novel with a compelling plot.

Okay, I know I'm gushing and still not doing this novel justice, writing about it in this very floundery, scattered way. So I’ll shut up and end with a passage from the book itself.

Kid and Scout are eating pizza. They’ve just decided to team up and form a band but they’re not sure what to call themselves. Kid asks:
“What are your songs about? I mean in general.”
You shrugged and dropped a folded crust into the box, then leaned back on your hands. They were probably greasy with pizza and for a second my heart skipped a beat as I thought about licking the sauce from your fingers.
“Just the world in general, I think. You know, people.”
“People it is.”
“As a name?”
I smiled. “Why not?”
So we were People. Finally.

Brooklyn, Burning comes out in September. Look for it.

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