Benjamin Lebert‘s debut novel ‘Crazy’ was first published in 1999 in German. It’s initially a coming-of-age story about young sixteen year olds who are on the brink of ‘growing up’ . The story itself is set in the grim Castle Neeseulen Boarding School, where teenagers of different backgrounds are gathered together for one final chance of improving their grades. When Benni first joins Neeseulen, the only problem he has is how to get his math score from a 6 to a 5; but as the term goes on, Benni finds himself an unlikely member of a motley crue, who between climbing fire escapes in the middle of the night, drinking everything in sight and screwing around a little also ponder the meaning of life along the way.
Oh, by the way… Benni is also a cripple.
Written from personal experience, Lebert manages to weave many thought-provoking questions into the novel. There is the painful embarrasment of partial paralysis written from a humorously optimistic point-of-view, that sharpens rather than masks how alienating the condition is, especially in a boarding school environment. Then there are the pains of growing up, the concept of ‘manliness’ and the issues of innocence lost. At moments, it is funny, yet under all the fooling about, lurk some important questions about life, love, childhood and adulthood.
“Hi folks, my name is Benjamin Lebert, I’m sixteen, and I’m a cripple”.
Amazingly, this is how Lebert introduces himself for the first-time to his classmates at Neeseulen. Leberts’ novel starts off pretty simple, but by the end of it, I grew so attached to the characters, that I wanted to read it all over again. Lebert highlights the importance of friendship during the stormy teenage years – how memories are made, and how ‘crazy’ the whole experience actually is. The boarding school life he recounts isn’t at all attractive. One gets a sense of the aimlessness of the children, the loss or lack of their parents, and the desperate ways in which they try to fill that void.
I agree with the comparison that it is much like ‘Catcher in the Rye’, with one difference: this is more accessible. The pessimism is not so heavy with Lebert, even though he has every reason to be so (being partially paralysed). He stands out as the optimistic one of the group, and through his eyes you begin to see how these children, (who come from broken homes and families) all find something to be grateful about.
A good read, and an excellent debut novel for a young author.
I give this 3/5 stars.