There is not a great deal of action in the conventional sense in this little gem of a novel. Much of the "action" is an introspective look by the narrator Auden Sletten. He is a rebellious teenager in Oslo, Norway in the years surrounding 1970. Although It's Fine By Me switches back and forth in covering a number of years (ages 12 - 18), it is reminiscent of James Joyce's Ulysses as Auden and his friend Arvid Jensen ramble through life.
Auden smokes and drinks in his very early teens. He is not sure that school is for him, yet he is consumed by literature, especially Ernest Hemingway and Jack London. If he wants to be a writer, he has the life that provides the grist for his mill. Auden lives in a dour, working class suburb of Oslo with his mother in their continuing attempt to escape her abusive, drunken husband. His brother Egil, two years younger, who drowned when he drove a friend's car into the river Glomma, continues to haunt Auden.
Auden is leaving childhood behind more quickly than he wishes, although he is not yet aware of this. Family dynamics are convoluted, school is not pleasant, and he hates his job delivering newspapers. There is a conflict between the world of literature and the bleak reality of his life. So, he quits school and gets a dead end job at a printing press.
The phrase, "It's fine by me," appears in a number of manifestations throughout the novel and sums up the stoicism of the characters. It is a tone of resignation, an acceptance of fate, a recognition that life will move along regardless. As Auden says so poignantly, "I don't know what's up with us. Things are just what they are." All this leads us to a beautifully realized denouement on the final page, an understated revelation of just what Auden has been careening toward.
Do not be fooled by the size of this slim volume. Each word seems to have been carefully chosen to fit the purpose. There is no waste. In an interview with The Economist earlier this year, Petterson indicated that although he would like to write something longer, "I am not able to stretch it beyond 250 pages…Less is not always more, but then of course, more is not always more either." In this instance, Petterson has hit just the right balance, and less is certainly more.
Per Petterson is best known in this country for his best selling Out Stealing Horses, which won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and was named a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. His background as an unskilled worker, bookseller, writer, and translator figure heavily in It's Fine By Me.