Danny Kelly has one dream: to win Olympic gold in swimming. Everything he and his family do is towards that goal. He endures the taunts of his teammates at his snobby prep school where he is a scholarship student because he knows he is the strongest, the fastest, the best. However, when Danny's dream is taken from him, all he has left is rage and shame. After jail time for a violent incident, Danny begins rebuilding his life. If he isn't the best, perhaps he can just be a good person. Christos Tsiolkas jumps around in time in Barracuda, giving us hints of Danny's life in the past and in the present, almost as if he's remembering it on the page. This is not to be pretentious, and Tsiolkas does us the favor of packaging Danny's reminiscences in chapter form. The author also is very good at capturing Danny's inner life and one really feels the burning loathing that he feels towards his classmates, his competitors and himself. When he gets out of prison, we can feel how disconnected Danny feels, and his need to give back all that he has taken. Barracuda may very well be the best coming-of-age novel from Australia this year.
In Jim Harrison's True North, young David's father is monstrous. Head of the family's destructive mining and logging businesses, he takes pleasure in all kinds of abuse, especially the rape of underage girls. David, on the other hand, aspires to atone for the generations of ecological and social damage that his family has done in Michigan's Upper Peninsula by writing an account of it. Along the way, his sister gets knocked up, he fails at relationships with women, and his dog dies. Harrison is known for his depictions of outdoors life as well as the sensual, and they are on display here in this dark, picaresque tale.
In Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld, Lee Fiora is sent off by her Midwestern family to an elite boarding school on the eastern seaboard. At first, she observes it from the view of an anthropologist, it is so strange. However, by her senior year, she's fully acclimated and having an affair with the star basketball player. She asks him to keep it quiet, but is hurt when he honors her request. Never insanely popular, Lee considers her introversion (read, self-absorption) the reason she is always on the periphery and befriends other outsiders. Lighter than the other two books I've recommended here, Sittenfeld nails the psychology, particularly the self-doubt, of adolescence.