- - Wednesday, June 6, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

US AGAINST YOU

By Fredrik Backman

Translated from Swedish by Neil Smith

Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, $28, 448 pages

Fredrik Backman’s “Beartown” was widely hailed as one of the best books of 2017. “Us Against You” is its sequel.

Beartown” was the story of an on-the-skids, remote small town whose people hope that their junior hockey team might bring them national glory — and with it economic revival — but instead find their dream shattered by an incident that tears the community apart. “Beartown” cemented Fredrik Backman’s standing as a writer of astonishing depth and demonstrated that he has a broad range.

Complex and dark, it was a very different sort of novel from his delightfully quirky “A Man Called Ove” which only a few years ago catapulted him to worldwide fame. It was also different from his next two novels that employed similarly whimsical humor — “My Grandmother Asked Me to Say She’s Sorry” and “Britt-Marie Was Here.”

Beartown” showed that Fredrik Backman has the ability to make readers understand the feelings of each of a dozen different characters every bit as well as when he wowed us when focused on a single central character. His characters are always so well developed you feel as if you know them and how they think and see things.

In “Us Against You,” the characters we came to know in “Beartown” are back, and a few new ones introduced. This remote small town in a forest is still reeling from scandal.

Months earlier the teenage daughter of the general manager of its beloved junior hockey team was raped by the team’s star player. Everyone in town remains convinced the scandal was the only thing that prevented the national glory the team was on the brink of achieving and by doing so igniting the community’s economic revival.

The never-convicted rapist was subsequently frightened out of his wits by his victim and he and his family are leaving town. The general manager and his family face vicious pressures to also leave town.

Most of the hockey players opt to play for Beartown’s bitter rival neighboring small town of Hed, where their former coach has also gone. And the Council decides to end funding for the Beartown team, dismiss the general manager and switch its resources to Hed.

A manipulative on-the-outs hyper-ambitious politician comes up with a clever scheme whereby a private sponsor provides resources, the general manager gets his job back and a new female coach is hired and builds a team around a core of three players she sees as potential greats.

It’s an emotional roller coaster of a ride with surprising twists and turns as the intense rivalry between Beartown and Hed escalates from pranks to serious violence, leaving both communities stunned by what they’ve become.

Neither this sequel nor its predecessor is a really about hockey. You might learn what just about everyone else already knows — goaltender is the key position, but details basic to the game aren’t even mentioned, not even how many players are on a hockey team (it’s 6). Nor is either one a sports novel. What both are really all about is people and community.

What you get in a Fredrik Backman work is wonderful writing and brilliant insights into things that truly matter — right vs. wrong, fear vs. courage, love vs. hate, the importance and limits of friendship and loyalty, and more.

Beartown” was certainly a complete work and “Us Against You” is worth reading either as the sequel or as a standalone. Its early part nicely sums up how the events in “Beartown” brought things to this point. But if you’ve read “Beartown” you’ll probably feel anxious for things to begin picking up and roughly a third of the way in they do.

If you’re thinking of reading either “Beartown” or “Us Against You” but not both, choose “Beartown.” If you’re going to read “Us Against You” but haven’t read “Beartown,” read “Beartown” first.

It surprises most of us who read “Beartown” that there’s a sequel. How it compares depends entirely on personal tastes. What surprises even more is that it’s going to be a trilogy.

Don’t expect book three to appear next year — a 2020 release is a better bet. Most likely his next book we’ll see in the U.S. will be the non-fiction book of advice to his newborn son that his Swedish publisher accepted at the same time it accepted “A Man Called Ove.”

Fredrik Backman, who just turned 37 a few days ago, is one of the world’s best and most interesting novelists. Also one of the most popular — more than 10 million of his books have been sold in nearly 40 languages. Almost anything he writes is worth reading. He is a giant among the world’s great novelists — and this literary giant is still growing.

• Fred J. Eckert, a former Republican congressman from New York, was U.S. ambassador to Fiji and to the U.N. Agencies for Food and Agriculture under President Ronald Reagan.


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