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June 13, 2014

Book Notes - Anthony Breznican "Brutal Youth"

Brutal Youth

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Anthony Breznican's Brutal Youth is an impressive debut, a novel that cleverly depicts the joys and terrors of high school life.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"Debut author (and senior staff writer at Entertainment Weekly) Breznican captures a perfect balance of horror, heartbreak, and resilience and takes the high school novel into deeper places."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Anthony Breznican's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Brutal Youth:


Brutal Youth is a resistance story, a dark coming-of-age tale about good kids who go bad while trying to survive at a corrupt and crumbling Catholic high school. It's about how we bond with those friends who help us beat back the bastards of life.

The story is set in the early ‘90s, but I tend to mention the music of the era more as an absurd counterpoint to the action – Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy" and Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U" get some play.

Music was much more vital as a writing tool. For the main characters, I tended to have a "theme song" that I would play (over and over and over) to rev the motor and bring a little inspiration whenever I had to get inside their heads.

The songs on this playlist aren't necessarily ones the characters would like or even have heard. Very few are from the story's time period. There was just something in the lyric, or the mood of the music that made me feel the character.

So whenever I spent a lot of time on the page with one of these denizens of St. Michael the Archangel High School, these are the songs I'd play.


1. The Boy on the Roof
Pink Floyd, "One of My Turns"

The book begins with a relentlessly picked-upon upperclassman who finally snaps, unleashing a violent attack on the school the same day a group of 8th grade visitors are touring the premises. He ends up on the rooftop, shoving stone saints over onto his classmates -- an example of what happens when a decent kid can't take anymore. We come to meet almost all the story's main characters as they react to this fiasco, and this sad, furious song from Pink Floyd's The Wall captures the tone. It begins with a detached lament, then detonates with unbridled madness before lapsing back into defeated, confused exhaustion. The lyrics have a lot maladjusted humor in them, and I hope this chaotic opening scene in the book does, too.


2. Peter Davidek, freshman
Elvis Costello, "Favourite Hour"

Peter is the story's main character, "freshly 14 years old and a foot shorter" than his fellow freshmen. But he's brave and he's good – at least when we first meet him. When The Boy on the Roof melted down, Davidek ran into the line of fire to save a wounded, unconscious kid. As the story goes on, he becomes much more interested in inflicting damage rather than preventing it. This song by Elvis Costello is a heartbreaking ballad about losing sight of the blessings in your life, and allowing rage to eat at your better self. It includes the line that gives the novel its title: "Now, there's a tragic waste of brutal youth …" That song came out in 1994, the year I graduated high school, and I remember thinking: yeah, that about sums up the past four years.

3. Noah Stein, freshman
Nirvana, "Even In His Youth"

Stein is Davidek's best friend, a sonofabitch for good causes. He's fearless, cocky, and the scars on his face are evidence of his love of starting (and finishing) fights. But he's no bully; quite the opposite. He's a smart-ass, but will stick his neck out to protect anyone who needs it. That makes him a pretty big target in a school that has become a dumping ground for delinquents and zealots. This hard-charging Nirvana song bristles with the kind of fury that churns constantly inside Stein. "Even in his youth/he was nothing" … "disgrace the family name" … "going nowhere" … These aching, shouted lines from Kurt Cobain put me in the head of someone who believes his only value is absorbing the pain meant for others.

4. Lorelei Paskal, freshman
Gillian Welch, "Miss Ohio"

Wistful, sad, and sweet, this 2003 song captures Lorelei's spirit perfectly. A fellow freshman who has come to St. Mike's seeking refuge from a painful past, she is desperate to be popular, but makes enemies a lot easier than friends. Welch's song breaks my heart every time, and Lorelei does, too. It's a folk song about a young woman trying to break free, and be happy, and live for herself for once. Unfortunately, Lorelei is a bit careless with the happiness of others. There's a St. Augustine-style lyric in the song: "I'm gonna straighten it out somehow/ Yeah, I wanna do right / but not right now." That's how Lorelei feels. Eventually she learns that not everything she breaks can be fixed.

5. Hector Greenwill, freshman
Jacques Loussier, "Air on a G String"


Green is a big guy, heavyset and the only black kid in this otherwise all-white school. He's a target for torment on two fronts, but is one of the only newcomers who truly knows who he is — maybe because he's used to feeling different. Green's a guitarist, piano player, and a lover of all types of music, and the song that always put me in his head was this recording by Jacques Louissier, who does jazz piano versions of classical composers like Johann Sebastian Bach. Like Green, his music is playful, delicate, but has a fair amount of swagger. Green's favorite is ‘70s-era rock ‘n' roll (he idolizes Eric Clapton), but someday he'll hear this and flip out.

6. Hannah Kraut, Senior
Camera Obscura, "Suspended From Class"

Brutalized with a horrid nickname and savage treatment from her peers, Hannah has scratched out her own face in all the previous yearbooks – determined not to be remembered, even if they try. But her revenge, she hopes, will be unforgettable. Hannah has only one friend – a teacher named Mr. Zimmer – and since he's the only bright spot in her life, she develops a wildly inappropriate crush on him. This 2003 Camera Obscura song is about a schoolgirl who also knows her way around treachery, but it's flirtatious, and nonchalant in its scheming. I particularly like this line: "I can be a friend to you / I won't pretend / I'm not interested in breaking your heart." Hannah is a great pretender, but not on that particular subject.

7. Mr. Zimmer, teacher
Brandi Carlile, "The Story"

"All of these lines across my face / Tell you the story of who I am." When I think of Mr. Zimmer, I think of this song. It starts out slow, and powers up. But it also makes me think of his face – stretched and lined, making him seem older than he really is. He's got one of those genetic disorders that makes him extremely tall, long-limbed, and scrawny. They called him The Gargoyle when he was a student at St. Mike's, and as a teacher he tries to protect others who are isolated and pushed to the edge. Carlile's song goes on: "But these stories don't mean anything / When you've got no one to tell them to …" Zimmer's tragedy is that he's one of the loneliest characters in the book, even though he's the one true friend to everybody.

8. Sister Maria Hest, principal
Bruce Springsteen, "My Best Was Never Good Enough"

This 1995 Springsteen song is made up of aphorisms: "Now, life's like a box of chocolates / You never know what you're going to get / Stupid is as stupid does / And all the rest of that shit." Sister Maria is the school's well-meaning but weak-willed principal, and tells herself a lot of happy lies like this. She's trying to prevent the crumbling school from closing, and knows she has to compromise to make that happen. The song has an angry streak: "The tough now they get going when the going gets tough / But for you my best was never good enough." I think of her directing those words at the angel on her shoulder, constantly telling her to take a stronger stand for what she knows is right.

9. Father Mercedes, pastor
Bob Seger, "Still The Same"

One of the few people in the book inspired full-on by a real person, this priest is a charismatic blowhard who charms and strong-arms his parish while skimming funds from its coffers. He lives large, loves to bet on the Steelers and hit Vegas or Atlantic City on vacation, and feels his lifestyle (and thievery) are justified by everything he has given up for the faith. Seger's song is a caustic look at such a scam artist: "You always won / every time you placed a bet / You're so damn good/ No one's gotten to you yet / Every time / they were sure they had you caught / You were quicker than they thought." I love the rollicking hustle of this tune, which matches Father Mercedes' final gambit: blame the school for the church's financial shortfall, and close it down so he can sell off the real estate.

10. Ms. Bromine, guidance counselor
Billy Joel, "Only The Good Die Young"

Ms. Bromine would hate this song. Despise it. She would slam the door on the guy singing it. Billy Joel's 1977 rock anthem is about a kid trying to woo a Catholic schoolgirl who won't give him the time of day, let alone let him make his way around the bases. I thought of Ms. Bromine as "Virginia," the girl who makes him wait, who starts much too late. As a student at St. Mike's, Gretchen Bromine was the good girl, followed the rules, and slapped away any advancements. But now she's a teacher, achingly alone, and growing older year by year at the school she once ruled. Temptation is no longer seeking her out. She played it safe, and missed her chance. Life went by. She burns with hatred for the boys who once lusted after her, but now laugh at her. It's not fair. They never told her the price she would pay; the things that she might have done …


Anthony Breznican and Brutal Youth links:

the book's website
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Library Journal review

Complex interview with the author
Entertainment Weekly essay by the author on writing the book
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review profile of the author
Riffle interview with the author
Take Two interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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