Every book I read these days is an opportunity for me to evaluate writing styles. And when I think back on all the crime thrillers, suspense novels, and noir fiction that I’ve enjoyed over the years, it’s the punchy dialog, the brevity of words, and “the short declarative sentences,” as in reference to Hemingway, that I liked. This was often coupled with poetic prose that gave these books a contrasting feel—where one can get a sense of the author’s soul.
I’ve only recently been introduced to authors John Fante and Charles Bukowski, and although their subjects are depressing, they’re style is somewhat similar. It’s unfair to say that Mark SaFranko’s Hating Olivia is exactly like them, but as Dan Fante, son of John Fante, said in the introduction, “Hating Olivia is fresh meat, a gift tied together with a bloodstained bow.”
There’s another thing: Mr. SaFanko has written a “hundred short stories, fifty of them already in print. A box full of poetry and essays. And ten complete novels, eight of them yet to hit the bookshelves. A dozen plays, some produced in New York and others staged in Ireland. SaFranko writes songs too, a hundred and fifty so far.” So, unpublished old guy that I am, I’m intimidated before I’ve finished the introduction!
One gets the sense of where the book is going early on. It’s written in the first person where the protagonist mostly tells the truth about himself. Max is a flawed character. He drinks and smokes too much, quits jobs because he’s bored or somebody pissed him off; debt and hitting the bars when he has a little cash is a way of life. He wants to be a writer, but he doesn’t write. He is obsessed with beautiful women, at least having sex with them. About one he said, “Like a beggar who covets the palace of the kingdom, I wanted what I couldn’t have….” Self-analyzing his general state of affairs, he says, “When I contemplated what a man had to endure in order to get along in this world, it turned my stomach. Nevertheless, an undefined guilt dogged me. Why was it I detested all things conventional and bourgeois? My head was in the clouds, for sure. Or up my ass, as my blue-collar old man liked to say…Worst of all…I never listened to anybody.”
Note the style and the tone here: After visiting an astrologer who wanted his phone number so she could follow-up on getting paid, he writes, “I wrote it down. She saw me to the door. The street was as quiet as a morgue. As lots of people said, Brooklyn was a place for nonbelievers. And, as someone else wrote, it was only known by the dead.”
Max meets Olivia in a bar. “We were to take the plunge together into the subsoil of raw concupiscence, from which both ecstasy and madness spring, and forgo the dusty, worthless upper strata of passionless habit and duty that most humans know. I would come to live for fucking Livy.” The reader knows that this “love story” is not going to go well. The title alone tells you that.
He moves in with her. He’s not even sure who she really is, but he’s stuck. “I had the growing sensation of being caught, like a fish swimming blindly into a seine….” Olivia spends money they don’t have. Max sees a shrink and self talks: “And what did I have to feel lousy about, after all. Wasn’t I merely the victim of my own laziness, my own ability to cope with the world as it was? And whose fault was that? Nobody ever asked me to think of myself as an “artist,” nobody had forced me at gunpoint into a ditch of debt. I was young. I was healthy. I could work. Most of my life lay before me—maybe….And, too, I had Olivia.”
They have to get work because they can’t pay their bills. Max joins the corporate world and offers some interesting insights into its bureaucratic absurdities. (Since I came from that world, I could argue that it isn’t as bad as described everywhere, but I’ve been places where it is.) Max thinks about suffering and misery. He can’t take it. He quits. Max and Olivia fight—slammed doors, vile oaths, screaming an yelling, pots and dishes are thrown. Still, they go to bed and screw. The author writes some beautiful prose through this and speaks of the sheer misery of her god-awful beauty.
They’re headed for another collapse of their finances. They talk of doom. We’re more than halfway through the book and I’m not going to spoil it with further descriptions. It’s not so much a happy or terrible ending as a reconciled one. The path to the end is very much worth reading. You get the sense—you hope—that, in spite of the obsession with Olivia, the poor choices, the degradation, Max is going to be okay. Yes, Hating Olivia is quite good. It grabs you. I poured through the book, but had to stop every once in a while to savor how the author put together a thought or an act. The writing is crisp and well organized. I enjoyed the book immensely because SaFranko told the story so well.
When I read a book like this, I wonder if I could write like the author—a sign of admiration, it there ever was one. I didn’t live the kind of life depicted, but could I write it? Writers of crime thrillers never killed anybody (most, anyway), but they know how to put a good deal of murder and mayhem on paper—for example, one of my favorites, Elmore Leonard. Author Zadie Smith wrote, “You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.” My as yet unpublished novel isn’t like Mr. SaFranko’s book. It’s more mainstream. But I think I’ll start with a short story—see where it goes….