Best New Novelist: Per Petterson

From Men’s Journal

And by Best New Novelist, I mean a 56 year-old, award-winning author who has six books of stark, muscular fiction under his belt, but who, until recently no one outside of his native Norway had ever heard of, let alone read. On one hand, this oversight is embarrassing and unforgivable. On the other, it’s thrilling. Either way, we have a lot of catching up to do.

There’s no better place to start than Out Stealing Horses, Peterson’s lucid, powerful masterpiece. Trond Sander, the 67-year-old narrator, is a widower who moves to the remote Norwegian countryside. Each day he putters around his house, sharpening blades on his chainsaw, listening to news radio, talking to himself. In other words, he’s a man who acts a lot like your grandfather does, like your father will in twenty years, like you will in forty. Eventually, Trond gets pulled under a wave of memory that beaches him on the shore of his fifteenth summer, the summer he and his best friend sneak into a neighbor’s pasture and steal horses for midnight rides; the summer a local boy kills his twin brother with an abandoned rifle; and the last summer before Trond’s father, a complicated hero who’d smuggled people out of Nazi-occupied Norway, mysteriously disappears.

What’s so refreshing about Petterson’s work, and what’s been so lacking in recent contemporary literature, is its authenticity. In American fiction, we currently have a lot of irony and cleverness and Big Ideas, but we have very few characters with whom we can empathize, very few images that linger after you’ve closed the book, very few authors whose voices you feel yourself leaning forward to hear. But in Petterson’s prose there’s weight and ballast, a sense that the story and characters and words matter.

Only two of his other novels are available in English, but with the success of Out Stealing Horses, that will likely change. Like Raymond Carver and Knut Hamson, two of the author’s biggest influences, Petterson’s work is a fundamental exploration of masculinity, of what it means to be male. He writes about violence and isolation, about the transformative power of landscape and lonely women, about fathers and sons and the durable chord that tethers them through time and distance, and he writes about all of it with grace and gravitas. For a writer, fiction this good is humbling and inspiring; for a reader, it’s a boon, like being given a bottle of perfectly aged whiskey. You don’t gulp it down, you sip and savor, and when another man steps up to the bar, you pour him a glass and, together, you raise a toast to your good fortune.