Book of the week

25th August 2000 at 01:00
CRAZY: A NOVEL. By Benjamin Lebert. Translated by Carol Brown Janeway. Hamish Hamilton pound;9.99.

Adults have struggled to recapture on the page how it feels to be 16: here it is straight from the horse's mouth. The author, now 18, has become a celebrity since publication of his partly autobiographical novel in Germany last year, with critics divided on whether his account of losing his virginity in the girls' toilets at his boarding school amounts to literature. Lebert has identified this as one of the passages in Crazy drawn from his own life. The rest of the touching, intense account of Benni's two terms at a well-meaning but grim boarding school mixes fact and fiction, although the central situation in based on Lebert's experience.

Neuseelen Castle near Munich promises "a new era in education". It's a last resort for the concerned high achieving parents of an underachieving bright boy with a disability, who have spent weary hours discussing their son in heads' offices and have left him in no doubt that he has not lived up to their expectations. "They can't be seen to be giving some mere middle-school graduation party. It has to be something more."

Benni is suffering the usual all-pervasive embarrassment of adolescence compounded by his disability (partial paralysis which means, for instance, that he can't tie his shoelaces or use a knife and fork) and by his parents' marital difficulties. In academic terms the school is another failure - Benni's maths grades never get any better - and the caring ethos much promoted by the staff rings hollow ("What matters here at Neuseelen is loving and hence binding values and social skills. Good to know").

In fact, school is a cruel universe in which his father's kind notes and gifts of Rolling Stones CDs are no help. Benni depends for survival on his gang: his room-mate Janosch and a small group of hangers-on who accept him instantly as a fellow confused and insecure spirit. These boys try and fail to keep up a pretence of not caring about each other. Like the Big Brother housemates, they have been thrown together in an artificial environment with apparntly meaningless rules and they quickly learn by heart each others' favourite T-shirts, favourite music and sexual fantasies.

Their substitute-family life together outside the classroom is both their emotional lifeline and the backbone of Lebert's narrative, which offers a window into the closed world of teenage boys' solo and collective lives, usually only communicated to adults by grunts. The immediacy of the authorial voice captures the agony and the irony of adolescence, without any sense of trying to please the adult readers for whom the novel has been published in the UK, probably because of its graphic sex scene and strong language. It has had huge sales in Germany to the teenage readers who identify with the obsessions, the ennui and the rambling discussions about life.

The Magnificently Maddest Six of the Century are fixated on the banned grown-up pleasures (cigarettes, beer and sex) that they can only enjoy by employing cunning and subterfuge. Janosch is the group's self-appointed expert on the secret world of the girls' corridor ("Janosch is sure soccer turns girls off"; "Janosch thinks all lesbians secretly dream of switching") with only a fraction more experience than his cohorts.

Lust is the gang's constant companion as they ogle Posh Spice in Playboy, egg each other on to visit the sex therapist and climb the fire escape to the girls' dorm, where Marie gives Benni the time of his life and then walks away, the princess of cool.

This well written scene is a hard act to follow in narrative terms. Rather like adolescence, the book rattles along at fever pitch to an uncertain destination and stops short. The gang's final adventure - Benni initiates a plot to run away to the big city where the boys make fools of themselves in a strip club - owes more to William Brown and the Outlaws than Holden Caulfield (Crazy has been generously compared with Catcher in the Rye).

However, Lebert quits just before the lapse in page-turning quality becomes too noticeable, leaving readers conscious of having relived part of their past - and glad it's all over.

Geraldine Brennan

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