The Outlaw

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Meet Jonsi Punk, the hero of THE OUTLAW by the Icelandic writer Jon Gnarr. The third and final volume of Gnarr’s autobiographical trilogy, THE OUTLAW tells of the misadventures of a 14-year-old misfit who, having been booted out of house and school, ends up in Nupur, a private institution in a remote part of Iceland.

Poor Jonsi has a rough time here as well. The other students can’t understand why he loves punk rock and believes in anarchism (“it was by far the cleverest structure for society”). To keep from getting beat up by them, Jonsi becomes the class clown. “My remarks and humor were never badly received,” he writes. “Everyone loved Jonsi Punk. Jonsi Punk was always fun. He was witty and always jovial. And though he was a prankster, he was a good one. I often parodied popular songs and got lots of laughter, even from those who liked the songs.”

Privately Jonsi was a very different kind of kid, one who suffered from bleak thoughts of alienation and despair. He drinks, uses drugs, and thinks of killing himself (“wandering around in my own world and fading out until I didn’t exist anymore. I could well imagine dying like that.”)

The kid manages to keep going, though. He survives excessive masturbation, failures with girlfriends, the discovery that he had a deformed prick (“it was all bent and crooked and stupid”), and being treated badly by his teachers–except for the new drama instructor, who felt he was a born actor and cast him as the lead in a school play which was so successful that it went on tour.
Jonsi’s triumph is short-lived, though, owing to a slight mishap that occurs in the village of Flateyri, where the cast was put up in a parish house which had an American-style convenience shop: exotic and tempting.

“After having considered the splendor for a short time, I kicked open the door to the shop and tramped into its bounty,” Jonsi confesses. “We looked about and grabbed candy, drank coke and chain-smoked until we emerged red-eyed right before sunrise.”
End of his drama career, end of his time at Nupur.

That’s not the end of his picaresque adventures, though. Jonsi strikes out on his own, briefly becomes a communist, works and fails at various menial jobs, loses his virginity to an older woman, and comes to love the once-hated Beatles. He continues to battle the world but, unlike most other disaffected rebels, never becomes bitter or violent. He also--quite surprisingly--sticks to his own personal code of ethics. He respects women, hates pornography, refuses to take part in a drunken gang-bang (“you shouldn’t fuck girls who don’t know you’re fucking them”). In short, he grows up: Jonsi Punk becomes Jon Gunnar Kristinsson.

Not even a series of epileptic seizures can halt his march to manhood. After a stay in hospital, he emerges feeling calm, determined, even reborn. “I’ll be something,” he tells himself. “I’m going to be someone. I’m going to make up stories and I’m going to write poetry. I’m going to create and I’m going to reveal everything. I’m not going to allow anyone to stop me having the right to be me. And I’ll never give up. I’m finally free.”

The author of THE OUTLAW has a similar profile. Gnarr spent much of his childhood receiving psychiatric treatment, but then went on to become one of Iceland’s most popular actors and comedians. In 2010 he ran for mayor of Reykjavik...and won.

(Translated by Lytton Smith, published by Deep Vellum.