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Appreciating The Awkward Absurdity Of Adolescence

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
July 25, 2011

I was first made aware of Bruce Robinson at a party in 1987 when I was introduced to him by a friend.

He wasn’t at the party. Why would he be? It was one of those teen affairs where everyone gets drunk on affordable alcohol, then swiftly disappears into various rooms for sexual experimentation. This party was perhaps a tad more sophisticated than others in that it featured a cinematic double bill to be played out on one of those old fashioned, modern video recorders (roughly the size of a small suitcase) and two freshly rented VHS tapes.

The first was Sam Raimi’s slapstick horror masterpiece Evil Dead 2; the second a hitherto unknown quantity called Withnail and I. Robinson’s film was a revelation, a bittersweet, hilarious story of two struggling actors at the cigarette butt of the 1960s who “go on holiday by mistake.” The film became an all-time favorite of mine thereafter and I became a firm fan of writer/director Bruce Robinson.

I was delighted in later years to discover his literary work, in particular his novel The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman. The story follows a bright but troubled young man through the precarious minefield of early adolescence, in ’50s Britain, a time when people were constipated with their own emotions and crippled by an inability to express themselves.

Thomas’ traumatic relationship with his parents and touching love for his dying grandfather form the backdrop to a tale which is both moving and side-splittingly hilarious. To Robinson, language is a rich palette artfully used to evoke the glorious absurdity of a world glimpsed through adolescent eyes. Like Thomas’ literary hero, Charles Dickens, Robinson possesses a prodigious talent for descriptive detail and manages to both beguile and amuse.

Beginning with a detailed account of Thomas’ strange predilection for soiling his underwear, the story introduces us to a very peculiar boy, a solitary individual, on a quest to discover his grandfather’s secret stash of bizarre pornography.

He is despised by his father and teachers, regarded with frustrated impatience by his mother and friend only to a similarly eccentric, chain-smoking youngster who happens to be the son of the local vicar. Initially, Thomas’ only redeeming features seem to be an aptitude for communicating in Morse code and a hopeless crush on the prettiest girl in his school. But as the narrative progresses we learn — through Thomas’ own self discovery — why he is the way he is. And we grow to understand and empathize with his emotions.

Piece by piece he assembles the puzzle that is his turbulent home life, an existence made awful by the festering resentment of his parents. Yet amid this adversity, our affection for Thomas grows as he discovers that the emotional turmoil engulfing him is simply not his fault. The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman is a book I could read over and again, a beautiful story told with such dexterity and depth, it can be enjoyed for both its imagination and its craft.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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