The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews Out
Stealing Horses
by Per
Out Stealing Horses
by Per Petterson

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Out Stealing Horses, the fifth novel by Norwegian laborer-turned-
librarian-turned author Per Petterson, reminds me of those
contemporary films made in black-and-white by directors who find
greater depth and power in the austerity
of the monochromatic.   Like them,
Petterson works with an economy of
means that gives all the greater impact
to the powerful effects he achieves with
his pen.  

The setting itself is unsuited for Techni-
color adaptation.  The novel begins in
November in the far east of Norway,
where 67-year-old Trond Sander has
settled in a remote, sparsely populated
area to live out his remaining days.   He
has no companion other than his dog
Lyra, little desire for human company,
and his greatest fear is whether he can
deal with the fierce snows of the approaching winter.   He has no
phone, no television, no friends in the area.  

Given this simple, unpromising starting-point, Petterson somehow
manages to construct a rich, deeply moving coming-of-age story,
spread across several layers of plot—the account of the current day
Sander, and his solitary life in 1999, intertwined with a luminous
story of his boyhood from 1948, which is further set against an
imaginative reconstruction of his father’s efforts in the Norwegian
resistance movement during World War II.   

This echo-laden juxtaposition of memory and contemporary action,
set in three different periods, would on its own make this an
ambitious book, but additional counterpoint lines are brought to
bear here.  These various plots are superimposed on to a searing
story of Trond’s boyhood friend, Jon Haug, whose family has many
convoluted, and often mysterious, interactions with Sander’s own.  
The novel, which starts out with a single isolated character, soon
becomes embedded in thick textures of contrasting secrets, motives
and missions.  

The novel proceeds much like a journal, in which Trond’s day-to-
day activities blend seamlessly with recollections and reflections,
with the apparently free-form flow of the narrative masking a tightly
constructed interweaving of potent story lines.  At first glance, the
hesitating and disjunctive presentation of the plot seems about to
collapse into formless mental ramblings of an old man, but
Petterson builds slowly, masterfully to a series of unsettling
revelations that turn the banalities of the quotidian into soul-
shattering epiphanies.    

After a long, circuitous opening section, there is break in the text,
which resumes with the curt one-sentence paragraph: “Something
happened last night.”  Even here the incident—Trond’s neighbor has
lost his dog, and has gone on a midnight expedition to find him—
seems innocent enough at first;  but the chance encounter between
two hermits from mainstream society will also open the door on
tragedies from the distant past.  Our narrator, who has come to this
remote spot seeking some kind of escape and solace, will find that
the past he has renounced has returned to his very doorstep.  

Trond is a fan of Charles Dickens—he spends much of his leisure
time reading and re-reading the works of the Victorian novelist—and
the twist his life takes at this juncture turns on a typically Dickensian
coincidence.  His neighbor, Lars Haug, is the brother of his boyhood
friend, and the calamitous events of the summer of 1948—so
troubling, that both men are reluctant to speak openly of them—are
brought vividly back to both men.  Each has issues from that distant
time, ones that can hardly be resolved, nor—as it increasingly
becomes clear—can they be put out of mind.  For both parties, that
summer defined issues of family, destiny, and personal
responsibility that they still wrestle with more than a half-century

Born in 1952, Petterson was in his mid-thirties before he published
his first book, the short story collection
Aske i munnen, sand i skoa.  
His life, like that of his characters, has been touched by tragedy—his
father, mother, brother and nephew died in a ferry fire in 1990.  Of
his own upbringing, he has commented:  “I thought everyone was
working class when I was a boy."   He worked as an unskilled laborer
as a young man, and later earned a living as a librarian and
bookseller before his writings brought him a large audience, first in
his native country—
Out Stealing Horses stayed on the Norwegian
bestseller list for almost a year-and-a-half—and now around the

Some have compared Petterson to Raymond Carver, and indeed the
author himself has remarked that Carver was a strong influence.  But
if both writers show allegiance to a minimalist ethos, at least on a
superficial level, Petterson reveals a more architectonic sensitivity
to the nuances of the story behind the story, presenting a taut
narrative concealed behind the loose episodic moments one
associates with Carver.  Small deft gestures serve as building blocks
for a more holistic style.   In
Out Stealing Horses, events have long-
lasting reverberations, and even the chance decision of a moment
can be life-changing.   Looking back on an incident from his teen
years, Trond remarks—in words one would never find in Raymond

…it dawned on me that from that small patch of cobble stones I
stood on there were lines going out in several directions, as in a
precisely drawn diagram, with me standing in a circle in the
middle, and today, more than fifty years later, I can close my eyes
and clearly see those lines, like shining arrows, and if I did not see
them quite as clearly that autumn day in Karlstad, I did know they
were there, of that I am certain  And those lines were the different
roads I could take, and having chosen one of them, the portcullis
would come crashing down, and someone hoist the drawbridge up,
and a chain reaction would be set in motion which no-one could
stop, and there would be no running back, no retracing my steps.  

As such a passage makes clear, Petterson is not lacking in ambition.  
This story, which started as a sparse journal by a recluse in his
isolated hermitage has finally morphed into the account of a young
man confronting his destiny, and grappling fiercely with its
implications.   The gradual steps by which Petterson transforms his
novel from a reverie of the aged to a potent bildungsroman are
breathtaking to behold.   Yet even as the secrets of the plot are
cleared up, and the shapes and colors of the story snap together with
the satisfying connectivity of interlocking jigsaw puzzle pieces, a
certain mysterious quality still adheres this novel and its narrator.  
And though there is much to admire in this fine book, this residual
sense that it is torn from a larger, fuller life perhaps offers the
greatest testimony to its intensity and power.
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