By the time I finished Steve Brezenoff’s Brooklyn, Burning, I was reminded of two things. First was that, in a random way, the book was not unlike the movie 8 Mile, full of small victories but no happy ever after. The other was I’d finally found the literary equivalent of this Hedi Slimane picture:
This is Kid (as in “Billy the”). Kid’s spent the last two summers, and much of the school year in between, running around Brooklyn. He’s skinny, unsure of himself in some ways, full of confidence in others. Over the course of the story, we see Kid fall in love, twice, and that his world is full of music and art and neglect and the things no child should have to see. He’s accused of starting a warehouse fire, just as he meets Scout, the guitarist who might be able to wipe away the bittersweet memories of Felix from the previous summer.
Brooklyn, Burning is full of heartbreak. It’s old wounds and new ones waiting to happen. It’s the resiliency and hope that only teenagers possess. We see a child, not quite grown, grow up far too fast and the toll it takes on his psyche.
And we feel, touch, and smell Brooklyn in the thick heat of summer. The rotting garbage, the stench of piss, the softening tar of a rooftop. The lurid colors of sunrise and sunset, their magnificence brought on by pollution.
Felix was never really quite there, either for himself or for Kid, and you can see Kid losing him before he’s truly gone. Felix was selfish, and Kid loved him anyway. He didn’t know any better. That first time you fall in love, you give someone your whole heart, because you don’t understand it’s better to hold something back, telling yourself it’ll keep it from hurting when, not if, it goes bad. As Kid puts it, “Can you miss someone before they’re gone, when they’re still smiling up at you with closed eyes and their beautiful face, with its deep set eyes and two days of beard, is rolling between your knees?” (pg. 130)
So when Kid meets Scout, he’s determined not to get smashed for him. Scout will leave him at the end of the summer. It’s a foregone conclusion. But Scout has different thoughts on how it’ll all go down, and in the end Kid’s laid bare again, holding out his heart for someone to take it, and Scout does and offers his in return.
This is the kind of story that has you racing from page to page, searching for the next bit of happiness that drives Kid on. This is the kind of story that breaks your heart and mends it again, proving the elasticity of the human spirit. Brezenoff has a way with words, alternately using them as a hammer and as a security blanket, soothing us and bringing us back on edge. I’d put the book down, only to pick it back up again, seconds later, unable to wait to see what happened to Kid.
You want to cry. You won’t. Even when you read the line, “Then I knew he’d found the silence he wanted, with his eyes wide open” (pg 187), you know that despite everything he’s gone through, shitty fathers, naive mothers, periodic drunkenness, the siren’s call of heroin, music, heat, sweat, and dirty sneakers, Kid’s going to be okay.