We’ve all probably read a book that has made us cry before. Heavy Metal by Andrew Bourelle will make you sob. Heavy Metal is Bourelle’s first novel, published by Autumn House Press, a small press in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It won the 2016 Autumn House Fiction Prize and with good reason. It’s a tale of a world that often goes ignored: the strife of teenage brothers growing up in a working-class neighborhood in the 1980s. There’s violence, guns, suicide, mental illness, alcoholism, you name it. However, it’s not just the mere placement of these issues that made me sob, it’s how Bourelle brought the storyline to life through his writing.
From the beginning of the book, the reader is hooked when Danny holds his father’s gun to his head, debating whether to pull the trigger. We find that Danny thinks about death a lot, one of the reasons being he discovered his mother’s body after she shot herself a couple years ago. Throughout the story, Danny fears becoming like his mother and battles with his depressive thoughts. His older brother, Craig, fears becoming like their father who’s an alcoholic and rarely shows any emotion towards Danny and Craig except anger. The main thread of conflict though is the feud Craig has with Jamie, the most popular guy in their high school who’s dating Craig’s ex-girlfriend. One day Craig disappears, and Jamie redirects his anger by tormenting Danny. The bullying gets worse and worse until the reader cannot help but feel that something horrible could happen any minute. With the three boys having a predisposition for violence and hot tempers, I was left sobbing over all that had occurred by the end.
Through the story’s conflict, Bourelle crafts lines that depict the impact of emotional suppression and mental illness. We gain insight into what Danny’s problems have done to him: “Life would be easier if you didn’t care, if you could walk through it numb, not feeling any emotions.” This phrase says a lot about Danny as a character and how deep his pain is rooted. Emotional suppression, paired with the masculine stereotypes imposed on the boys, causes them to resort to violence as an outlet. The boys never once try to sit down and talk about how they feel. Danny even has opportunities to get help through the school counselor and local police officer, but he refuses to talk to them. Bourelle made me reflect on how so many teenage boys ignore their emotions and what kind of issues in society this causes— such as violence. Bourelle also uses the motif of music as a physical manifestation of Danny’s emotions: “I think about if I tried to express my rage to the world what my song would sound like.” With this motif, the title Heavy Metal makes sense; It’s about heavy emotions resulting in heavy violence— the metal alluding to a gun.
Written in present tense, the book places the reader as close to Danny’s mindset as possible. We see these events occur as they happen, and we don’t know what horrible thing will play out next. If it was written in past tense, we would possibly feel more optimistic that Danny is still around to tell his story, but present tense allows for the threat of Danny taking his own life to be very real. Also, Bourelle does a great job of capturing how teenage boys actually talk, and he removes the dialog quotes to demonstrate how much the words impact Danny. “I’m sorry about last night, bro” is a simple phrase Craig says to Danny, but since the boys rarely outright say their emotions, it bleeds into Danny’s internal dialog, showing how much he internalizes his brother’s love and everything going on around him.
I would recommend Heavy Metal to those who enjoy the classic The Outsiders, as it puts teenage boys in horrific adult situations. It lends perspective to those who have tragedy painted into every day of their lives without a happy ending in sight. It highlights issues such as mental illness, bullying, hyper-masculinity, and violence. Bourelle made me laugh and cry. He left me turning pages at 2 a.m. to find out what happens even though I had class the next morning. He made me feel with Danny, not just feel for Danny. And that’s what a good book should do.