canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Mark SaFranko
Murder Slim Press, 2008

Reviewed by Zsolt Alapi

Some readers will find Mark SaFranko’s Loners, a collection of eight genre-bending stories, not to their liking because the characters peopling these dark tales seem to live their lives without a moral center. However, this is precisely what makes this book such a provocative, dangerous, and wonderful read. SaFranko is at his gritty best here, laying down some of the best character-driven fiction that defies classification.

These stories feature lost lovers, serial killers, first time murderers, and simply those who are down on their luck--- all outcasts, most of them on the losing end of relationships and life. Yet in the midst of their bleakness, readers will recognize fundamental truths about loneliness, desire, passion, and that part of themselves that they rarely allow to surface. SaFranko is a master of urban realism, but, more than that, he is also conversant with a literary canon that is as eclectic as these stories themselves. Reading SaFranko’s fiction reveals a writer who owes an equal debt to Poe, Selby, Bukowski, Miller, Camus, Hammett, Celine….the list goes on. At the same time, he is the consummate stylist, a literary voice that is wonderfully original. Each story is perfectly crafted, each phrase reads effortlessly, though you know it has been laboured over, and each character haunts you long after you have put down the book.

As a fan of his previous novels, Hating Olivia and Lounge Lizard, I had a certain view of SaFranko’s place in the literary "underground"—someone who wrote about love and relationships gone wrong, but, more specifically, wrote a type of "confessional" prose that follows in the vein of Miller, Selby, Burroughs, Bukowski, et al. Though the protagonist of the aforementioned novels, Max Zajack, is clearly a persona or a literary creation, the reader still gets a sense of the author’s own life experiences lurking behind the events of the stories. In Loners, however, SaFranko peoples his stories with men and women from all walks of life, presenting the point of view of a deranged serial killer just as skilfully as that of the lonely, fiftyish woman who owns a motel in a remote corner of Nova Scotia.

All of the characters in Loners are different: some desperate, some twisted, some lost, but all of them united by the need to live life intensely. In the first story, "The Man in Unit 24," we are presented with a lonely woman who begins an affair with a mysterious man who is renting a room in the motel she owns. Despite her growing awareness that he is a fugitive from the law, she is drawn to the degrading, sex she has with him "snared in the odd vortex of an experience in which pain is the component of blind pleasure." Yet before readers can compartmentalize this as another sado-masochistic affair, SaFranko shocks them with the following insight, cutting like a white blade to the quick of the post-modern condition: "Anxiety and fear, hunger and danger, are less than nothing in the face of eternal boredom and emptiness." While the echoes of Camus are evident in this passage, SaFranko’s take on this is just a passing thought amidst the events of the characters’ lives, all matter of fact, inserted without existential or philosophical moralizing.

And it is this that makes Loners such a significant work of fiction. It can be read by the average reader who will find pleasure in its plot and intricate characters (his depiction of the mind of a serial killer in "Just Next Door" with its wonderful build up to a totally unexpected culmination is probably the most authentic and disturbing rendering of this genre since Poe’s "The Tell-Tale Heart"). At the same time, the glimpses into human longing and the complexity of his characters will satisfy an academic raised on Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Sartre. Reading SaFranko’s stories will make you want to dust off your favourite literature and remind you why you fell in love with the power of words in the first place.

Finally, SaFranko is at his very best when he writes about the unusual in the commonplace, a theme that pervades these stories. While many of them are disturbing and even sensational in their ability to evoke the horror that lurks in the human heart, my favourite has to be the last in the collection, "Life Change," the story of a couple who escape the big city to reinvent their lives in a small Adirondack town. As they inevitably do in a SaFranko story, things go wrong, their relationship sours, the woman falls for the owner of the local restaurant, a mysterious drifter with a past, who is a self-taught philosopher. Meanwhile, the narrator, the jilted husband, despairs about having lost his wife and young son, and contemplates suicide. At the very end, we are left with an image of him sitting alone, drinking, watching the drifting snow, wondering if "they (his ex and her lover) are thinking about me?"

If you know Joyce’s "The Dead," you will recognize the scenario as well as the poignancy in these lines. SaFranko, however, doesn’t borrow this situation, but rather adds to it in a way that only great writers can: in their own voice, with their own unique vision, voicing those very themes that bring us to a shuddering awareness of our common faults and humanity.

Mark SaFranko’s Loners is a splendid book, made even more so by the art work and design of Murder Slim Press, proving once again how the craft of micro press publishing is the last of the great cottage industries.

Loners is a collection that is a must read. The horror and the beauty in these stories will haunt you long after you have turned the last page.





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ISSN 1494-6114. 

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