Alle-Kiski Valley native returns to roots for first novel, 'Brutal Youth'
New Kensington native Anthony Breznican's dark, coming-of-age debut novel isn't just set in the Alle-Kiski Valley — it was born from it.
From the Tarentum Bridge to Harrison Hills Park, Breznican's “Brutal Youth” follows three high school freshman across the Valley as they struggle with life at the bottom of their small Catholic school's ruthless social ladder. What transpires at many of these local landmarks are often derivations of Breznican's own experiences growing up in the Mt. Vernon neighborhood of New Kensington.
“After writing the book, it's almost like I have this dual set of memories here in the Valley,” he said. “There are the fictional ones that I created for the story, and there are the real ones that, in some cases, inspired them and come rushing back every time I come to visit.”
Breznican, 37, lives in Los Angeles with wife Jill — a Lower Burrell native — his daughter Audrey, 4, and his son Prosper, 1.
A senior Entertainment Weekly writer, Breznican began writing “Brutal Youth” in 2006 to capitalize on the alone time he was afforded by his wife's pursuit of a master's degree in library science.
“She was working hard to become a librarian, and I wanted to give her something to stock on the shelves,” Breznican said. “It was also a way of returning home for me when I couldn't physically make the trip. I had this story and these characters, and I could put them inside this world that I know all too well.”
Anchoring that world in “Brutal Youth” is St. Michael the Archangel High School, a looming, three-story edifice cast in the center of the narrative's only fictional town, sandwiched somewhere between Brackenridge and Harrison.
With plummeting enrollment rates and growing financial woes, the decades-old school is crumbling in reputation as much as it is in structure. Years of neglect allowed vines to crawl up the side of its brick exterior, its old wooden floors creek and emit long and haunted groans, and the rain that leaks from the ceiling discolors and warps the classroom walls.
The building, as described by Breznican, strikes an uncanny resemblance to the old and now shuttered St. Joseph High School in Harrison's Natrona neighborhood.
“I had that building in mind when I was describing the school,” he said. “I wanted it to feel like this haunted castle — something that was swallowing you. The old St. Joe's building was built in 1921. Its bricks look like scales and the vines on its exterior are like veins. It's something that feels like it's alive, or at least once was.”
Having graduated in 1994 from the new St. Joseph High School in Natrona Heights, Breznican never had classes at the old building but can recall having school plays and dances there. He remembers being “scared out of (his) wits” asking girls to those dances, getting butterflies before the school plays and continually fretting over the state of his permanent record.
They're problems that all high school students face at one time or another. But they're problems that are exacerbated for the characters of “Brutal Youth” by a longstanding tradition of hazing and bullying that's tolerated by the faculty of St. Michael's and even perpetuated by some of the influential alumni and board members.
Breznican insists that this aspect of the story isn't directly related to St. Joe's but draws some parallels to the fictional St. Michael's in describing his time at the Natrona Heights school.
“It was troubled,” he said. “The hazing was certainly there, and it was part of it, but I think they've pretty much done away with all of that now. More than anything, I just couldn't sit still or resist dropping a sarcastic comment. I had a lot of great teachers who could deal with it and direct that energy, and I had a lot who couldn't.
“There were a couple meetings, I think, that were held to suggest I might be better suited at a different school. I would never want them to think that this book is in anyway a shot at St. Joe's, though.”
The angst-driven 14-year-old protagonist of “Brutal Youth” endures some hazing rituals that are redolent of Breznican's own experiences. At one point in the novel, the character's father drives him down the long, winding entrance way off Freeport Road to Harrison Hills Park, where he'll be subjected to the final hazing ritual of the year at the school picnic.
With the character's stomach in knots, Breznican said the scene is a virtual recounting of his own “death march” to the picnic when he was a freshman in high school.
“I just remember having this total feeling of dread,” he said. “It turned out it wasn't too bad, but we still spent a lot of time at the overlook in the woods to avoid as much punishment as possible.”
St. Michael's aside, perhaps the most important setting in “Brutal Youth” is the Tarentum Bridge. The four-lane span represents a point of transition either in character or story development in “Brutal Youth” and often serves as the setting for major plot developments.
It was a conscious choice to emphasize the importance of the bridge, according to Breznican, because the Valley's bridges are what he said shape the area's singular identity.
“I think of the Valley as one big town,” he said, “and that's only possible because of the bridges, especially the Tarentum Bridge. It's the main artery that connects one side to the other and it's the one image that I think best signifies where I grew up.”
Refuge in library
Where bridges represent transitions in Breznican's story, libraries serve as the place for character revelation. One such revelation takes place in Peoples Library along Barnes Street in New Kensington, where Breznican spent countless hours as a teenager.
His grandmother owned a nearby flower shop along Fifth Avenue, and whenever he felt he'd worn out his welcome, he'd head to the library and bury his nose in any Stephen King novel he could find.
“I've always been amazed with what Stephen King could do with words,” Breznican said. “I wrote him a letter when I was done writing the book.
“I said, ‘Every ghost story I used to write in my notebook as a teenager was for you. All these years later, I think I have something you might think is worth reading, and I hope you give it a shot.' ”
He did. About three weeks later, King delivered a complementary tweet to Breznican to let him know he enjoyed the “Brutal Youth” prologue. When he was done reading the whole book, he emailed Breznican a blurb that he could use to promote it — words that now adorn the book's cover and dust jacket.
“He didn't have to do that,” Breznican said, “and I think it says a lot about the kind of man he is. The scariest man in the world is also, I think, one of the nicest and most genuine.”
Breznican was in town this month until Sunday. He held book signing events on Saturday at the Peoples Library and on July 7, at Barnes & Noble in The Waterworks, near Aspinwall. Of the 100-plus people who turned out for the Barnes & Noble signing were a few recent St. Joe's graduates who reached out to Breznican for advice in pursuing a writing career.
“It almost feels like things are coming full circle,” he said. “I used to do the same thing when I was that age living here, and now I'm on the other side of it. That's what it's about, though.
“You can either pass along the torch, or use it to light the next person on fire.”
Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or firstname.lastname@example.org.