Per Petterson’s latest novel, I Refuse, resembles its predecessors, Out Stealing Horses and I Curse the River of Time, in the richness and immediacy of its imagery and the scattershot arrangement of its plot. We follow a small group of characters, most of them from troubled families, as their lives deteriorate—or not. But the word “followed” is out of place here, because the small descriptive passages that make up the book jump back and forth repeatedly not only from character to character but also from the 1960s to the first decade of the current century.
I don’t know if this is how the man works, but it would be easy to imagine Petterson writing down his story chronologically, then cutting up the pieces and rearranging them on a bulletin board until the pattern of details and revelations is just right. Yet the individual passages are so vivid that once you’ve read the book, it’s a pleasure to go back and start re-reading it with a better idea in mind of who the characters are and how the pieces fit together.
The novel focuses on childhood neighbors Jim and Tommy, who live in a small town near Oslo. Jim has only a dim recollection of his father. Tommy’s mother has long since vanished. He and his three younger sisters bear the almost daily abuses of a violent father. At the age of thirteen, Tommy feels he’s old enough, and big enough, to settle the score, and from that point on the siblings are dispersed to various foster parents in the community.
Jim and Tommy are best friends. Jim is the “cool” one, though his mother is a Christian. Tommy is ever the hothead, though the man who takes him in, Mr. Jonson, gives him a job at the local mill and helps him straighten out his life.
I won’t be giving much away if I reveal that Jim and Tommy eventually drift apart. The first scene in the book depicts Tommy, in a new Mercedes, pausing on a bridge at dawn to say hi to Jim, who’s fishing there with other ne’er-do-wells. The year is 2006. The two haven’t seen one another in decades, but Jim is still wearing the same blue cap. It’s clear from their conversation that Tommy misses his old friend, while Jim has long since grown indifferent to Tommy and a lot of other things. Why?
Smaller strands of the book follow Tommy’s mother after she leaves the family, and his sister Siri, who falls in love with Jim. Petterson gives us just enough detail to establish how Tommy became a successful financier, and to limn the lifelong bouts of depression that underlie Jim’s inability to stick with his prestigious position at a local research library.
A surprising portion of the book is given over to geography, as Jim describes again and again which highways or pedestrian route through the city he took to get somewhere:
He turned left on the bend by the art centre and into the high street. 1t was chilly along the road, but it was always colder in Lillestrøm and windier than anywhere else in Romerike, and the wind was moist and clingy and stuck to your skin.
From the high street he entered the mall, Lillestrøm City, through the swing doors, and right after the doors, before the shops unfolded to the left and right, he stopped in front of the door leading to the staircase and the lift and stood there waiting. There was a sign on the wall that among other things said: Social Security 2nd floor. I'll have to go up, he thought, I have no choice. But he didn’t open the door. He looked at his watch. There was still another quarter of an hour. he walked into the mall and took the escalator down to the basement where the bakery was open, and …
There are also more than a few lyrical passages of outdoor stuff, which might almost be described as Hemingwayesque, with a bit of Margaret Wise Brown thrown in for good measure:
Jim and Tommy came down the path between the trees towards Lake Aurtjern. The ice shone in the moonlight. They were up to their ankles in snow. Their ice hockey skates dangled on their chests with the laces lied around their necks. They were both wearing caps. Jim’s long hair was tucked under the edge, and they looked unfamiliar, different, even to each other, but although Tommy was taller than Jim they looked more like each other with their caps on than they did without, they just weren’t aware of it themselves.
The moon was mirrored on the ice, and the ice looked as solid as it was. It was a night of blue ice, minus ten degrees, and the moon lit up parts of the rocky hill behind the lake and drew dark lines down where the ravines ran from the top to the far bank. A fir tree leaned over the lake casting crooked shadows across the ice. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Everything was still. They stopped for a moment in the snow by the bank and gazed at what lay in front of them. Jim turned to Tommy and said:
‘You could get religious for less.’
'You’re already religious.’ Tommy said.
‘Not so much any longer, actually. I'm a socialist. I’m for a classless society.’
Much of the strength of the book lies in the immediacy of such descriptions. The lack of authorial analysis or narrative links contributes to the same vivid effect. Who are these people? Why can’t they be friends? Why does Jim burst into uncontrollable sobbing from time to time? Why is Tommy estranged from his wife? Where did his mom go?
Petterson has created a dark, lovely, incomprehensible world that resembles the one we live in, where emotions are multivalent, relationships are prone to both missteps and misunderstandings, and motives are often obscure.