German critics 'Crazy' for teen's novel


NEW YORK -- "Is it all right if I don't eat it all?" Benjamin Lebert asked in a small, polite voice, staring down at the thick slab of filet mignon he had ordered at Michael Jordan's Steakhouse in Grand Central Terminal.

Lebert is 18, a slight, sweet-faced boy, partly paralyzed on his left side from deprivation of oxygen at birth. His first novel, "Crazy," written when he was 16, has been a runaway best seller in his native Germany. There are 200,000 copies in print; the rights have been sold in 26 countries. This month "Crazy" is being published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf.

German critics have called Lebert an heir to Guenter Grass. Der Spiegel praised "Crazy" as "a thoroughly amazing and wonderful book." Stern magazine wrote: "No one has ever been so right-on in expressing the drama of being young. A sensation." A Publisher's Weekly review prepared before the book's publication in the United States was more muted in its praise, calling the book "slim but entertaining."

Still, it is all quite overwhelming. "I have a car driving me here," Lebert said, speaking English fairly well. "It's unreal for an 18-year-old person, like it's not true."

Lebert looks younger than his years. Today he is dressed in a T-shirt from the musical "Jekyll and Hyde" with a sweater underneath, jeans, work boots and a leather jacket.

"Crazy" is about a teen-ager not unlike Lebert himself; in fact, the central character's first name is Ben. He, too, is paralyzed on one side, and, having been kicked out of four schools, has been sent to a boarding school so he can raise his math score to something like a passing grade.

On the fictional Ben's first day at the school, called the Castle Neuseelen (Lebert is a Kafka fan), he makes his standard introduction in the hope of forestalling the usual stares and teasing of classmates: "Hi folks, my name is Benjamin Lebert, I'm 16, and I'm a cripple, just so you know."

The character can't play sports, but he loves books, particularly the writing of Ernest Hemingway. He is affectionately tolerant of his father's taste for rock 'n' roll. "My father loves it, has for centuries," he says. "He likes the Rolling Stones -- they're a rock group from way back. Every time they're on tour, he takes me. He hopes I'll like the music. I don't, but I still have a terrific time. I'm happy for my father, because he's happy, and I'm happy that we're being happy together."

Almost immediately upon arriving at the school, Ben hooks up with Janosch, the leader of a group that includes Troy, whose parents are dead; Florian, "a k a Girl," and "Fat Felix." There is also Malen, Janosch's girlfriend, on whom Ben develops a crush.

The friends play pranks, including pretending to the school sex counselor that they are gay. When it comes time to raid the girls' dorm, Janosch has to carry Ben on his back because he can't keep up with the other boys. Ben finally loses his virginity in the girls' bathroom, but not with Malen. Eventually the group takes off for a strip club in Munich. Ben, still failing miserably at math, gets thrown out of school. But he departs having made some very good friends.

Lebert said using his own name for the central character was "a terrible mistake" and that "I will never do it again."

"The feelings are all true," he said. "But basically, it's not true."

Lebert comes from a writing background. His father, Andreas, was the editor of the magazine section of the Munich newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung and now develops new products for media companies. Benjamin's mother, Jutta, is a homeopathist. Andreas Lebert, present at his son's birth, said Benjamin was born with his umbilical cord around his neck, which probably caused the oxygen deprivation that resulted in his partial paralysis.

In high school, Lebert was unable to participate in sports and was tormented by others because of his handicap. His parents separated. He found refuge with his grandfathers, both now deceased. They were "my personal heroes," said Lebert. "Every time things were hard at home, I went to my grandfathers." He dedicated "Crazy" to them.

An avid reader, he likes Jack London in particular, and says that "without Salinger 'Crazy' would never have existed."

The young author was reluctant to show his work to his father. "He's very critical and knows a lot about writing," he said. Andreas Lebert said the two had "sort of agreed we won't work together on this," adding, "Because I'm his father, it's hard to be an editor."

Finally, Lebert had a third draft, a 105-page manuscript. Then his father asked to read it. "I will always remember" his reaction," the young man said. "He said, 'It's a nice novel.' "

Lebert may have achieved literary success, but he still hasn't graduated from high school. He lives with his mother in Munich, though he has used the money from his book to rent a small apartment in which to write. Girlfriends? "I had a girlfriend, one time," he said with an emphasis on the "had."

What about another novel? "First, I have to live," said Lebert. "I cannot write a novel without living."

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