Fissures in Friendship: ‘I Refuse’ by Per Petterson

I refuse book dabbler featuredNew Glarus Brewing Company made news this spring when Spotted Cow, its flagship brew, was sold illegally at a tavern in Maple Grove, Minnesota. Because New Glarus distributes and sells its beer exclusively in Wisconsin, any non-Wisconsinites who want to legally purchase Spotted Cow—or any of the brewery’s offerings—must travel to the Badger State to do so.

Now, Spotted Cow is a delightfully refreshing cream ale, boasting bready malts and easy-drinking sweet-corn flavor. It’s a bit grassy and a little fruity, too, and on a hot summer day, there’s nothing I’d rather drink. But despite high demand for the beverage outside Wisconsin, the folks at New Glarus have chosen to focus on their local customers and have thus far refused to expand beyond their home state. This is no doubt a carefully considered choice—one that separates them from prevailing ideas about business and success, and highlights those decisions in life that are difficult, yet necessary, to make.

With his new novel, “I Refuse,” Norwegian author Per Petterson explores similar emotional and philosophical struggles behind acts of refusal through the book’s main characters, Tommy and Jim.

The story begins in 2006 on a bridge in Oslo. Jim, an unemployed, middle-aged man plagued by panic attacks, is fishing in the early-morning dark when Tommy, a successful businessman and closet alcoholic, drives by in his expensive, brand-new Mercedes. The two haven’t seen each other in over three decades, but Tommy recognizes Jim immediately—Jim still wears the same blue reefer jacket he wore as a boy—and Tommy greets him by name. Although both have become lonely and emotionally isolated over the years, their resulting conversation illustrates how very differently life has turned out for each.

The encounter between Tommy and Jim is brief, used by Petterson as a jumping-off point for the bulk of his novel: a retrospective narrative that follows both men as they recall the long-ago events that first united them in friendship and then drove them apart.

Tommy’s story steps back to the day in 1966 when, at nearly 14 years old, he decides will no longer tolerate the beatings of his abusive father. After suffering a final near-fatal whipping, Tommy takes one good lick at his dad with a Rounders baseball bat and escapes to the safety of Jim’s house; he simply has nowhere else he can go.

Jim, on the other hand, recalls a frigid moonlit night just before Christmas of 1970. He and Tommy, both 18 now, have taken their ice skates to nearby Lake Aurtjern. Jim has recently started dating Tommy’s younger sister, Siri, without Tommy’s knowledge, and the reader intuits that the secret weighs on Jim. Petterson describes a beautiful, peaceful winter scene as the boys make arcs around the lake, stopping here and there “with a shower of ice spraying up from the blades like you could see in an ice hockey match.” He juxtaposes this imagery against Jim’s inner turmoil, the intensity of which prompts Jim to ask Tommy for reassurance about the strength of their friendship.

“We can be friends for as long as we want to,” Tommy promises. Though Jim is happy and relieved to hear Tommy say this, he still refuses to come clean about Siri. Here, Petterson employs a rather heavy-handed metaphor for the break in their friendship as the lake’s ice begins to crack around them. The metaphor works, though, strengthened in part by Petterson’s feel for action and pacing as the boys race to safety, and also because the event permanently alters the balance of their friendship.

Throughout “I Refuse,” Petterson refuses to resolve some of the most urgent questions about his characters until absolutely necessary. Much like the way we wonder about the reasoning behind New Glarus’s business decisions, Petterson keeps us guessing about why each man has allowed sadness and regret to replace a friendship that once seemed so vital. As he moves through years and decades, we witness actions and outcomes long before we learn about the motivations behind them. In this manner, Petterson’s characters acquire a depth that is shared only in the most intimate of relationships.

Petterson also makes an interesting stylistic choice in the book by refusing to use question marks. As a result, even sentences that are clearly constructed as interrogatives begin to resemble declarations. Without question marks signaling meaning and intonation, the reader must work to understand what each character knows and feels. When the story returns to the present day, both Tommy and Jim are so thoroughly thrown off by their encounter that they, too, begin to question what they know and feel. Each comes to the conclusion—albeit separately—that they can no longer go on living as they have.

Translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett, who has also worked with Karl Ove Knausgaard and Jo Nesbø, “I Refuse” is full of beautiful sentences that ring true in any language.

About Brendan Kennealy

Brendan Kennealy is a writing and PR professional who lives and works in St. Paul. Find him on Twitter here: @extrapalemale.

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