Boy wonder

A German novelist who wrote a bestseller at age 16 hits the Big Apple.

By John Freeman
Published April 12, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Novels about adolescence rarely come from youths themselves. Twain was 31 when he introduced Americans to Tom Sawyer, Salinger just one year older when the infamous "Catcher in the Rye" came out. So it's always a shock when a teenager cuts through the Sturm und Drang of adolescence to tell a good story. In his nervy, pocket-sized debut novel, "Crazy," Munich-native Benjamin Lebert does exactly that. Written when he was just 16, "Crazy" has the whiff of teen spirit, yet the polish and panache of the work of a writer 20 years older.

Meeting Lebert at a lower Manhattan rooming house explains some of this. Pretty quickly, I realize that questions about Christina Aguilera or skateboarding are not going to fly -- that in turning this "average shitty day when nothing happens" into a book, the young German has happily hopscotched his way into adulthood. About the only concession he makes to his age are his baby-faced grin and some bright-eyed questions about whether there are indeed wet T-shirt contests in America. Before I can steer him toward the neon lights of Sixth Avenue, Lebert changes gears and starts talking to me about who he is now and how he struggles against what he has come to represent.

Ever since "Crazy" took Germany by storm, being too closely associated with his novel's narrator (who is named Benjamin, and, like Lebert, suffers from partial paralysis of his left side) has been a problem for Lebert. "These are just my impressions, they're not intended to speak for all youths. That sort of takes something away from my book. Not all of those things happened. I didn't go to a Munich bordello. It's fiction." In a sometimes breathless present-tense voice, "Crazy" recounts how Lebert's namesake attends a new boarding school and makes friend with five boys who smoke, drink and philosophize about chasing the "Secret of Life." Benjamin (the character) loses his virginity in a girls' lavatory, sneaks off grounds to a strip club and basically dedicates himself to doing something crazy, to becoming a participant in the whole mad mess of life.

Sitting down over Cokes, Lebert seems anything but crazy, shrugging off questions about what it's like to be footloose in the Big Apple with no adult supervision. He's been seeing movies -- "The Beach" (OK) and "Magnolia" (very good) -- and meeting "lots of very nice people." But he doesn't seem intent on ravaging the downtown clubs. Being in America is a relief from the constant public attention he gets in Germany. "There was one week where I could go to the newsstands and my picture was on every single newspaper." Six months after publication, "Crazy" had sold over 180,000 copies. Filming for the movie has already begun. Lebert had a cameo, which has since been cut. "I asked for a cigarette in one scene. I guess it was so bad they got rid of me."

If anything, Lebert seems intent on entering the literary world, as a writer or editor -- he's not sure which -- rather than being its wunderkind. The biggest boon of stardom for him has been getting to meet some of his literary idols, G|nter Grass and America's most famous ex-wunderkind, Bret Easton Ellis, whom Lebert briefly met at the Frankfurt book fair. "He looked grumpy," said Lebert. "But so was I, you know, I don't want to sit through 15 interviews and talk small talk at a book fair all day. I'd rather be playing soccer or something." As right as that sounds for an 18-year-old, it might be the biggest piece of fiction Lebert's delivered yet.

John Freeman

John Freeman has written about books and culture for the Village Voice, Time Out New York and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He lives in New York.

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