Firmly connected to the cold, often bleak landscapes they inhabit, Per Petterson's characters are never frivolous, however impulsive and even violent their actions might be. Often shackled by circumstances over which they have little control, they respond in the only ways they can, sometimes self-destructively. In the ironically entitled It's Fine By Me, an early Petterson novel from 1992, Audun Sletten shares his life from his teen years to age twenty, always honest in his feelings and always sensitive to his personal standards of behavior though he often imposes these standards with violence.
As the novel opens, thirteen-year-old Audun Sletten and his mother have just moved from the rural countryside to an area outside of Oslo, and from the first day of school, the reader sees that life is going to be difficult for Audun, who lacks any sense of compromise. Petterson's depiction of Audun is lifelike, carefully crafted to allow Audun to maintain the personal respect he believes he deserves, while at the same time, so psychologically revealing that readers will immediately feel empathy for him and understand his behavior. As the novel moves back and forth between Audun as a thirteen-year-old and Audun as a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old, his tendency to hit first and deal with the results later creates problems for him and for others around him. Even as a twenty-year-old, he is still quick to react with force. Still, he shows some empathy for others - adults who treat him kindly, and some other, younger children who do not threaten him. Gradually, after many dramatic events, the reader sees Audun beginning to grow emotionally.
Some of his growth is the result of his fast friendship with Arvid Jansen (who becomes the main character in Petterson's I Curse the River of Time), and it is Arvid's father who guides him to read books that he finds appealing, an experience which leads him to want to be a writer. Ardun's own father, a violent drunkard who thinks nothing of beating his wife, smashing Ardun in the mouth, and hurling his younger brother against the wall, has been gone for five years during most of the novel, his actions revealed through flashbacks, but when he does show up to lurk about, his appearance terrifies Ardun. Wonderful peripheral characters have their own stories - his younger brother Egil; Leif, an elderly farmer and his wife Signe, who provide him with refuge as a child; his sister Kari, who goes off with a Jimmy Dean clone and then inspires Ardun to "rescue" her; and old Mr. Abrahamsen, a man on Ardun's paper route, who takes the time to show he cares.
Beautifully developed and filled with details which ring true, not just in terms of the time and setting, but in terms of psychological honesty, It's Fine By Me feels autobiographical in its ability to convey real feelings by real people. The moving conclusion to this novel shows Ardun's growth - often with the help of those who care about him - and readers who see themselves (at least in some aspect) within the character of Ardun will celebrate his coming of age - all the while knowing that Ardun is a work in progress and that he'll never be able to take life or his own responses to threats for granted.