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Open Heart Surgery Performed With An Axe

Tony O’Neill reviews Mark SaFranko‘s Hating Olivia:

Hating Olivia by Mark SaFranko (Murder Slim Press, 2005) is a very special book, a precious book, and one to be read and re-read until it is dog-eared and tattered. It comes with an introduction by Dan Fante and the connection doesn’t just end there. With Hating Olivia, SaFranko has shown himself to be somewhat of a kindred spirit in terms of both men’s raw, emotional honesty.

Our hero here is Max, a frustrated writer lost in the post-sixties world of the American underclass. He is literally starving; living in a cockroach-infested room and making ends meet by working a series of soul destroying manual labor jobs. Upon meeting the mysterious and beautiful Olivia his insular world is disrupted forever. At first Max and Olivia share pure artistic goals — she will be Anais Nin to his Henry Miller — and a hedonistic life of sex and artistic indulgence ensues. However, when nothing gets accomplished and their accumulated debts threaten to make them homeless, they are forced out of their cocoon into the harsh realities of corporate America.

The book itself is beautifully written. The prose is hard and vivid, never lapsing into cliches or flowery language. You can almost hear the rattle of a typewriter as SaFranko wrestles each word onto the page. He has a great skill for creating characters that are tangibly real in their brilliance and their fatal flaws, and Max’s great love and destroyer, Olivia, is a living, breathing terribly vivid creation. The threads that run through this book have been touched upon before in modern American literature: the dehumanizing effect of the corporate world on the human soul, the clash that occurs when artistic ideology meets the need for capital, the endless, brutalizing war between the sexes, but they are explored with such a deftness of touch and emotional honesty that every word feels fresh and vital.

Max’s foray into the world of telecommunications is at once funny and depressing, the boredom is evocated with a wry smile yet the full destructive effect that it has on the human psyche is clearly illustrated. I always hate to cite Bukowski as reference, but with both writers’ skills for re-creating the horror of manual labor and low-level bureaucratic jobs it is impossible not to. What makes SaFranko different from the thousands of imitators who have ran aground trying to emulate Bukowski’s deceptively simple-sounding style is his chops as a writer. The comparisons only come later when you try and put the book into context. On the page it feels entirely original and engaging.

As the book progresses it darkens and the full extent of Olivia’s instability becomes apparent. The portrait of a young man trapped by his love of this woman, even as the circumstances surrounding the relationship make it — on every rational level — unsustainable, is an impressive one. In his introduction, Fante describes the scenes between Max and Olivia as being like “open heart surgery performed with an axe” and it’s hard to think of a better description. Mark SaFranko is a major discovery for me. This book is one of the most exciting new novels I have read in a long time. A follow up, Lounge Lizard, is apparently ready for release, also on Murder Slim Press. Go on, track down a copy, and discover this book for yourself.”

(Tony O’ Neill, whose debut novel Digging the Vein comes out next month, will soon be interviewed by Richard Cabut for 3:AM.)

First posted: Monday, January 23rd, 2006.

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