Photo of Duff Brenna on book tour in Bend, Oregon Cover of Murdering the Mom, a memoir by Duff Brenna Cover of Minnesota Memoirs, short stories by Duff Brenna Cover of The Book of Mamie, a novel by Duff Brenna

“I don’t make judgements. I just want a good story.”

—Duff Brenna, referring to his character Triple E from Too Cool

Reviews: Too Cool

Full Text of Reviews

Too Cool: Unflinching Look into Tormented Youthful Heart
Review by Richard Bernstein
New York Times Book Review, 27 July 1998

William Blake said that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, and mythologist Joseph Campbell, in a statement that Duff Brenna uses as an epigram to his new novel, said something similar. Campbell wrote that “the high road to the soul’s destination” leads through “dark and devious ways.”

Such phrases have always made me wary, since they suggest a justification, not for the hard anvil of experience but [for] the soft marshes of self-indulgence. And when a novel takes off from such notions as the “soul’s destination,” I worry that we might be in store for a sentimental rhapsody, a redemptive fable.

Brenna’s book is indeed about the road of excess, but there need be no worries about sentimentality here. His Too Cool is an unfaltering, unflinching, piercing look into a tormented youthful heart; it is finely modulated both in style and moral tone and provokes a hard-won sort of compassion at the end. Brenna’s characters are teen-age desperadoes living on the nasty edges of Denver. Their excesses involve things like stealing cars, smoking dope, beating bystanders and one another, having rough sex, and hating their semi-absent parents.

The main character is Elbert Earl Evans, 16, known as Triple E, whom we first meet in a stolen Oldsmobile escaping into the wintry mountains of Colorado ahead of the police. With him are Jeanne Windriver, his 15-year-old girlfriend; a cousin named Ava; and a buddy named Tom. Triple E has escaped from reform school, where he has done something very bad; we don’t know yet exactly what, but it had to do with an act of violence against the school psychologist, Renee Bridgewater.

“Ambition hooked him briefly, little daydreams about being like her,” Brenna’s narrator says of Triple E’s complicated relationship with Mrs. Bridgewater. “But then he lost faith. Words coming from her mouth wandered over him empty as air, unable to do anything, unable to physically take hold and change anything.”

The first few pages quickly demonstrate Brenna’s keen ear for his characters’ aggressive vernacular, the macho swirl of language that expresses the perverse intensity of their quest for individuality, and at the same time insulates them from its consequences, providing protection. They are bad kids, but not irredeemably bad.

Early on, Triple E leaves the car to rob an elderly woman carrying groceries, but he desists when she takes him for a neighbor’s boy and begins talking to him with affection. The group drives into the mountains in a heavy snowstorm. The police close in, and Triple E turns the car onto a narrow mountain road where, miles from anywhere and inundated by snow, they become hopelessly stuck. Brenna achieves passages of lean beauty as he describes Triple E’s confrontation with the immensity of his predicament:

“He checks the circumference of his universe, vast and white and indifferent, able to swallow life the way the sea can swallow ships and even whole civilizations. A smothering dream: he becomes the last living thing, his head bobbing on the surface of an empire made of snow.”

From here on, Brenna alternates between Triple E’s efforts to save himself and Jeanne, and a recollection of the events that led to this entrapment in snowy desolation. It would have been easy for Brenna to fall into a kind of stock treatment here: the father who tells him “You’re not the son I wanted,” the distant, alcoholic mother, the turn to crime and guns. But while those are the main elements in the picture, he writes with such terseness and pungency that we never feel as if we have seen exactly these things before.

At the heart of Triple E’s recent life, and of Brenna’s vision of a boy in trouble, is the unbridgeable divide between him and those who try to help him. As he recalls his days at the Goodpasture Correctional Facility, he remembers Mrs. Bridgewater’s delusional notion that Triple E was a special sort of boy whom she would save with love and literature. She has him read passages from a book called Modern Man in Search of a Soul, but as he complies, his mind is occupied elsewhere. “Painted nail pointing at the book. Nail dark, like a drop of wine. He wanted her to put it in her mouth, suck the drop off.”

And then there is Tozer Douglas, a teacher at the reform school who believes that boxing rather than literature is what will save the souls of wayward youths. “Life ain’t fair,” Tozer tells Mrs. Bridgewater. “Big deal. Be a man about it. Learn how to use it. I’m teaching him how to use it.”

Tozer and Mrs. Bridgewater are like the priest and the pharmacist talking in Madame Bovary, each arguing a point of view, both claiming to understand Emma Bovary’s anguish, and each revealing his own solipsistic blindness. Each wants to help but also uses Triple E to satisfy a private ambition. After nearly falling under their sway, he spectacularly rebels (his rebellion against Tozer providing an unforgettably powerful passage). We simultaneously cringe at his self-destructiveness and applaud his spirit.

As Triple E struggles to find a way for him and Jeanne to survive, his memories come in near-hallucinatory form. The idea here is for the boy-man to face the explosive rage, the death wish, the primitive urgings, and the craving for love that brought him face to face with death.

Again, in less skillful hands, this could come across as a cliché, an imitation of a breathless dust-jacket blurb. But throughout Brenna’s story we have the sense of being guided by a probative narrator whose wise, unillusioned stare gets to the reality of things. What especially characterizes Too Cool is not just compassion but the honed intelligence of a skilled writer who has brilliantly evoked the airtight, impenetrable inner logic of youth determined at all cost to find its own way.

(Copyright Richard Bernstein. All rights reserved.)

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Review by Random House boldtype

For his first two novels, The Book of Mamie and The Holy Book of the Beard, Duff Brenna won national acclaim. Called “an American treasure” and “a formidable literary presence,” Brenna has been compared to writers as diverse as Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Pynchon, and Ken Kesey.

With Too Cool, Brenna has crafted another stunning novel, a razor-sharp tale of violent youth and first love. In perfectly pitched prose Brenna explores the conflicted emotions of Elbert Earl Evans (“Triple E”), a young man at war with his world. Scrapes with the law have landed Triple E in reform school; but little reforming goes on there, just confusion and more violence, until Triple E makes the only choice he can: he steals his teacher’s Buick, finds his girlfriend Jeanne, and starts his run for freedom. But when the car becomes stuck in a deep snow drift, Triple E faces obstacles he never dreamed of — bitter cold, starvation, and the possibility of losing Jeanne in the desolate and unforgiving winter of rural Colorado.

(Copyright Random House boldtype. All rights reserved.)

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Review by Publishers Weekly, 15 June 1998

Brenna’s troubled teen protagonist collides with the elements:

Again displaying the versatility evident in his warmly received The Book of Mamie and The Holy Book of the Beard, Brenna has created a poignant portrait of an antisocial youth bent on violence and self-destruction. Despite his undeniable intelligence and sensitivity, there may be no saving 16-year-old Elbert Earl “Triple E” Evans from a life of escalating delinquency and danger.

Chronicling a life-and-death car chase with police through a Colorado blizzard, Brenna takes readers on a captivating tour through the memories and dreams of Triple E as he reflects — with little regret — on the (mostly) bad things he has done. Having broken out of reform school in the stolen car of a pretty psychologist who made him her pet project, Triple E picks up his friend and criminal cohort, Tom Patch, his cousin Ava (who is sweet on Tom), and his girlfriend, Jeanne Windriver.

His deep, self-sacrificing love for Jeanne is one of many qualities that give Triple E a complexity beyond the anarchic destructiveness of his actions. Stuck with Jeanne in the deep snow of a remote mountain road, Triple E reflects — sometimes involuntarily — on everything that brought him to this point as he marshals his remaining strength in an effort to save her life.

Pacing his narrative with the suspense of a thriller, Brenna writes grippingly and with uncanny insight into the mind and heart of this violent, unforgettable character who, despite his youth and the untapped good within him, is likely irredeemable.

(Copyright Publishers Weekly. All rights reserved.)

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