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Norwegian makes a splash with 'Buzz'

If he were from Sweden instead of Norway, perhaps Johan Harstad, author of the weird and wonderful "Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?" would be considered the Next Big Swede.

After all, Swedish literature is capital-B-big, and getting bigger. But Harstad's Norway is quite different from the milieu of Stieg Larsson, Wallander series creator Henning Mankell, and Jo Nesbo, whose creepy novel "The Snowman" is making waves on both sides of the Atlantic.

Larsson, Mankell and Nesbo would be unlikely to center a novel around a modest early-30s gardener who idolizes Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon. They would probably not title the book's four sections after albums by the Cardigans either.

The gardener is Mattias, and he's a young person living happily outside the spotlight: "Not everybody wants to be head of a corporation. Not everybody wants to be among the top sports personalities of their country, to sit on various committees -- Some people want to be cogs."

That's Mattias, and his place in the world is his garden. When told he has a singing voice that must be heard, he says, "No." Period.

So perhaps it's unsurprising, then, that our narrator would be obsessed with Buzz Aldrin -- not Neil Armstrong, or Chuck Yeager, or even Laika the space-dog.

"Where were you when the second person ventured out of the Eagle in the sea of tranquility at 0415 hours?" he asks the reader. "Had you switched off the TV? Gone to bed? Then you missed Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon."

It's a wondrous metaphor for Mattias, "the kid in your class in elementary school, in high school, in college, whose name you can't remember when you take out the class photo 10 years later." But this doesn't make for a boring protagonist. It makes for a reticent one. And a frustrating one, too.

When Mattias' girlfriend Helle leaves him for a courier named Mats, her explanation, sadly, rings true: "Mats went out more, Mats wasn't frightened of the world, Mats wanted to be seen in the world."

His response, as expected, is to acquiesce. Mattias is not a fighter, and one must accept that this is the character in order to stick with his journey.

And a long journey it is. If it seems that Mattias' story meanders, it does. If it seems overlong, it is -- almost 500 pages. But the characters are written with such offbeat charm that the novel is never dull, and always compelling, even when its narrative is downright confounding.

Part of what makes Mattias' journey so memorable to an American reader is the sense that he's living on alien soil. Never is this more evident than his time in the Faroe Islands -- not to be confused with Sweden's Faro, the island Ingmar Bergman called home -- whose landscape seems utterly foreign.

It's worth noting that the plot is secondary here. What intrigues is Harstad's skill at characterization and mood.

He has a keen sense of pop culture and its often life-altering impact, and never is this more evident than in his use of the Cardigans. Those who only know the Swedish alt-poppers for their worldwide hit "Lovefool" might find the author's use of the band head-scratching, but the group is wildly popular in Scandinavia, and their use here makes for a smart, sensible framing device.

The pop-suffused "Buzz Aldrin" was a smash in Norway, already adapted into a TV series, and Harstad is a rising star. We can expect great things from him, I think. Why? Because there's no telling where he'll go next, just like Mattias.

The character helps make this a breath-of-fresh-air novel, and a reminder that there is more to Scandinavian literature than mystery and murder.

Christopher Schobert is an associate editor of Buffalo Spree Magazine and a freelance Buffalo writer and critic.


Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?

By Johan Harstad

Seven Stories Press

480 pages, $30