Crazy was a bestseller in Germany, where it was originally published. Why? Germany’s long-standing cultural interest in the everyday discomfort of being-in-the-world might be one reason. I can’t think of another. In this autobiographical novel, Benjamin Lebert (b. 1982) recounts a couple of key incidents that occurred during the year its protagonist—16-year-old “Bennie Lebert”—spent repeating the ninth grade in the Castle Neuseelen Boarding School, located about an hour outside of Munich. Partially disabled, Bennie is paralyzed on the left side of his body. His roommate, Janosch, is the relatively charismatic leader of a band of overweight, silent, or otherwise socially awkward misfits, and Bennie, needless to say, fits right in.
Like all teenage boys, these self-proclaimed “heroes” are obsessed with sex. “We bury ourselves in Playboy,” recounts Bennie. “It used to be we pinned up pictures of superheroes in our rooms. Now what we pin up is super tits. Really we’re still small boys.” In the first of his two boarding-school adventures, the heroes visit the school’s girls’ wing for a beer party, a journey that entails an epic ascent up a fire-escape ladder. Once there, Bennie gets drunk, loses his virginity, and vomits on the floor. “Enough for one night,” he decides. “Enough to make anyone puke.”
Much of this short yet tedious book’s commercial appeal lies, no doubt, in its fairly banal musings on the nature of God and existence. Life is at various times essentialized as “being afraid,” “a big wet bed,” and as something “full of stories.” A large nod to its literary inspiration is made during a bus trip to Munich, when Bennie reads Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to his friends, bringing a couple of them to tears. Better that than American Psycho, I suppose.
The Munich spree turns out much happier for the boys than their earlier adventure, probably because the strippers who entertain them so thoroughly do so at a much safer distance than the real girls upstairs. As much as Janosch tries to reassure his friends that they are indeed “crazy” heroes of everyday life, the book is ultimately about fear, failure, and despair. Bennie flunks out of school yet again, with only another year at another new school to look forward to. “How can you describe life in boarding school?” he asks himself toward the conclusion of this pointless peek into the void. “It goes by.”