Anxiety dreams take many forms. The car with brakes that fail, the test for a class you never attended, the Giant Eagle thumbprint cookies — the ones with fudgy centers and walnuts — you crave but can’t get to the store in time to buy.
That last one is pretty specific and belongs to Los Angeles resident Anthony Breznican, a New Kensington native, University of Pittsburgh graduate, husband and father of two, Entertainment Weekly writer and first-time novelist.
Like many expats, he misses Pittsburgh family and friends along with Aiello’s and P&M pizza, Eat’n Park Smiley cookies, Glen’s frozen custard in Springdale and seeing what new faces have been added to the wall of Primanti’s in the Strip District.
He hopes to hit some of those favorite haunts when he returns to Western Pennsylvania for his 20th high school reunion, the chance to introduce his year-old son to his grandmother in Tarentum and a discussion and book signing at 6:30 p.m. July 7 at Barnes & Noble, 926 Freeport Road, at Waterworks Mall.
His first novel, “Brutal Youth,” recently arrived in stores with a striking and symbolic cover image of a school uniform jacket and tie on fire and blurbs from publishing or entertainment superstars. Stephen King promises, “If you thought high school was hell, has Anthony Breznican got a story for you.” And he is not kidding.
On the back, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” author and filmmaker Stephen Chbosky coincidentally calls the story “part ‘The Outsiders,’ part Stephen King’s ‘The Body,’ ” and a tough, fearless, heartbreaking book about the darker side of growing up.
It’s all of those things but not a chance for Mr. Breznican, 37, to exact revenge on his alma mater, St. Joseph High School in Natrona Heights. He borrowed the landscape and towns, scrambled names of some grade school friends or cribbed those of teachers, but St. Michael the Archangel High School, a fictional, troubled, coed working-class school in 1991, is not St. Joseph’s past or present.
St. Mike’s festers with bullying and hazing, has a bitter guidance counselor, a conniving priest with a gambling problem who skims from the collection plate, and students who wound with nasty nicknames and diabolical methods of humiliation and torment. The school bleeds crimson-colored water when the poorly patched roof springs more leaks.
“The last thing in the world I want is people to think I’m settling old scores with my high school. And I was aware I was doing an amped up version of a school that was falling apart and corrupt down to its core. My school was not leaking water or collapsing; it was in good condition,” he said in a phone interview this week.
St. Joseph’s did have a brief period of initiation — the novel greatly exaggerates and expands that — and a picnic at year’s end which could force freshmen into mortifying behavior.
“When you’re a tiny little 14-year-old freshman, that’s pretty terrifying. The idea that you could go to this picnic and be forced to put on a little show, dress in drag. … You feel like, oh my God, if I embarrass myself, this is what I’ll be remembered for the rest of my time.
“When you get some distance on it, you’re like, why was I so worried? It hardly matters but that’s why I dialed up the weirdness and the peril in my story. I was trying to capture the vibe of when you’re that age and everything feels like it’s epic in scale and apocalyptic,” whether getting dumped by a girl or being sent to the principal’s office.
“At the time — I don’t think I’m alone in this — it feels like the conflict in a David Lean movie,” he said.
The former student nicknamed “Brez” (sometimes with a four-letter word attached) today is married to a library archivist, Jill, and they are the parents of a 4-year-old girl and year-old boy. He is a senior staff writer for Entertainment Weekly, mainly focusing on movies, which can mean exploring the new “Star Wars” or “Transformers” cast, interviewing Angelina Jolie or reporting on the Oscars from backstage in Hollywood.
He started daydreaming about writing the novel in 2000 and became more serious about it in 2001. That is when he married Jill, who had spent her freshman year at the same school while he was a sophomore before she moved away with her family. They reconnected years later when she returned to Pittsburgh to visit old friends.
The wedding jogged a lot of memories. “You have a life change like that and you start to reflect on the past. You get married and you see all your old friends, and they’re getting married. You’re grown-ups now. ...
“I started thinking about the friends I had back in those days, that intensity and anxiety and danger that I was describing. You get through that because you had a best friend, or a couple of best friends if you’re lucky, who stuck by you and were with you while your personality was being formed. Like stars being thrown out of some quasar, you were all in it together for a while.”
He wanted to write about the high school equivalent of being in a foxhole with your buddies and battling the world at a time when you feel powerless. Other than a few shenanigans, there aren’t a lot of real events in the novel.
His wife’s pursuit of a master’s in library science provided him with the chance to start the book in earnest at night and on weekends while she was busy studying. Years later, after many revisions and rejections, someone at St. Martin’s Press championed the book and shepherded it to this month’s publication.
He remembers sitting and rocking his newborn daughter to sleep and thinking about the Paul Simon “Graceland” song, “That Was Your Mother,” with its lyrics about a couple before they became Mom and Dad.
As he contemplated what his child would know about her parents, he imagined she would read his book and see what he thought and cared about. But then another voice in his head wondered if she’d be reading a stack of papers in a binder or which manuscript that might be, the long one or the short one.
“That really got to me. I’ve got to get out there. I’ve got to start pushing this,” he thought, and periodic mandated furloughs at then-employer USA Today pushed him to send out letters to every agent or editor he could find. And that is when the book found a booster and a home.
Even though boyhood hero Stephen King contributed a blurb for the novel, the pair have never met. It was a blessing in disguise in 1989 when Anthony couldn’t convince anyone to take him to see the R-rated “Pet Sematary” but his grandmother bought him the novel. It inspired him to write his own scary stories, which high school teacher John Carosella read aloud in class without identifying the author.
“I wanted to think back to, when do we become who we are? I think people are capable of change in little ways but you essentially are who you are.”
If you’re lucky during that malleable age, you have someone like a Mr. Carosella who says: “Don’t let your fear and your anger destroy you. You have something you’re good at, you have friends who love you and care about you. Pay attention to that, not to all the painful stuff and all the agonizing stuff.”
The writer continues, “If you have a couple of people like that in your life — my grandfather was that way, my grandmother was that way, both of my grandmothers were that way — a steady hand on the wheel when you’re in rough waters really makes all the difference.”
In the acknowledgments, the writer thanks (among others) one of those steady hands, Mr. Carosella, “my former teacher, my present teacher.” He adds, “When I was 14 and wrote a freshman essay about wanting to be a writer, he started encouraging me and has never stopped.”
The 37-year-old calls him “one of that rare breed of teacher who finds pieces of garbage among his students and says, ‘This is worth something; I can fix this.’ He fixed me. And I‘m just one of many.”
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: email@example.com or 412-263-1632.