Thursday, February 18, 2016

Review: THE PIRATE, by Jón Gnarr

The Pirate, by Jón Gnarr. Published 2016 by Deep Vellum. Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith.

In the followup to Gnarr's The Indian and the second in a trilogy of fiction/memoir about 1970s Iceland, a young teen with learning and social difficulties finds himself attracted to punk rock and all it represents as he tries to find his way through school and family life.

Jón is a middle school kid stuck in the middle. At school his fellow students mercilessly bully him while his teachers barely register his presence, and at home his parents struggle in vain to control a child who's experimenting with drugs and drinking. Jón has an especially difficult relationship with his father, a police officer. He finds consolation in music and becomes drawn to punk rock with its heady mix of freedom, rebellion and camaraderie. Instead of going to school he hangs out with other disaffected kids- runaways, dropouts and misfits- where he starts to find community and a purpose.

Gnarr the writer does an incredible job of telling the story from a kid's perspective, showing Jón's naivete and idealism, along with poor judgement, tortured kid-logic and blasé cynicism and emotional detachment. When his grandmother dies, Jón takes it in stride: "She was from another world, a shadowy, ancient world where it was always cold and everyone was wet and either hungry or very ill the whole time. So they tended to die sooner or later." His relationship with his mother is summed up in the opening paragraphs: "She had a downcast expression. 'Come have a chat with me, Jón.' She wasn't angry. I hadn't done anything. I'd even been unusually quiet. But whenever I heard that tone in her voice it meant she blamed me for something, like the time she found cigarettes in my pocket." And his father is just "weird."

Gnarr goes on to describe the intolerable abuse he suffered at the hands of his schoolmates who stalk and beat him daily. He doesn't know what to say to his parents. It's as though the world is split in two, between what goes on inside and outside his home. He makes friends with a bus driver and finds a group of kids to hang out with with issues similar to his own. Little by little he finds some purpose, some things to believe in, rooted in the belief that he's different somehow:
My brain was like a nuclear power plant producing endless ideas and words. The words were three-dimensional, and under each word were sentences, new meanings, possibilities. The words swapped, merged, formed new sentences. the words played on the emotions like harp...But others didn't see me with my eyes. They wouldn't. They just saw me with their eyes. The lived in prison. but I was outside. I was free, but they were closed off...They were blind because they did not see.
Ah, yes, that wonderful child's belief that they know things adults don't, like the adults had never been kids or had utterly forgotten what it was like and are incapable of empathy. It takes a child's narcissism to believe that you know more about what someone else is thinking than they do, and I love how Gnarr replicates this state of mind so perfectly. It stands alone well but would probably be rewarding to read as part of the series too. The Pirate is brilliant, heartbreaking and so true to a kid's brain it's painful sometimes, great for adult readers of adult or YA fiction.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.