Murder Slim Press, 216 pages, paperback, £13.95
Reading a Mark SaFranko novel is the literary equivalent of slamming back a shot of 151 rum: no matter what comes next, it’ll strike you as tasteless and unimpressive. SaFranko writes with candor and the kind of unrestrained prose that makes words and sentences feel like punches to the brain. The fact that he’s more successful in Europe and that his main publisher is not in the US proves that sometimes the publishing industry is as accurate as a blind kid swinging an imaginary stick at a piñata made of shadows.
Lounge Lizard picks up where SaFanko’s previous novel, Hating Olivia, left off. Max Zajack is unemployed and still hurting and obsessing over everything that happened with Olivia. Time has passed, but it’s had no effect on Max. He hasn’t had sex in years and his writing is a ghost of the past, a dead dream that refuses to disappear once and for all. Finally, facing eviction, he has to find a job.
After working like a mule, he accepts a writing and researching gig at a telephone corporation. For Max, a corporate job is like spending eight hours in hell. Despite his hatred for the job, the pay’s good and the writing comes easily. Then he accepts an offer to go out with a friend and meet some women. That first night is a turning point and suddenly Max’s dry spell is over. Suddenly, all kinds of different women are jumping into bed with Max, and he’s able to pay his rent and afford nights out and booze.
Life is looking a bit better, but not for long. Women are complicated; Max turns out to have deeper issues that his therapist can’t solve; he might have caught a sexually transmitted disease; Olivia’s getting married; there’s a killer stalking women at night; and a crazy woman keeps calling and threatening him. Apparently, money and sex are not enough to keep a man happy, and Max will have to learn to live with that while he struggles to revive his dead dream.
SaFranko’s prose is raw, electric, tight, sexy, and simple. The narrative moves forward like an angry animal that grabs readers by the throat and viciously drags them along. Zajack might not be the sweetest character in the world — or even have sufficient redeeming qualities to make him likable — but he’s definitely one of the most unflinchingly sincere characters in contemporary fiction. He seems to have no conscience, and he calls himself a writer, even though he stopped writing after his first two novels failed to find a publisher — but when he hurts, the pain is so real you feel it. We all have damaged moral compasses, and SaFranko is not afraid to remind us via his narrator.
While Hating Olivia was about being (or not being) a writer and wild love, Lounge Lizard is about dealing (or not dealing) with crippling writer’s block, swimming against the current, spitting in the face of the American dream, and approaching sex as a balm while standing on the edge of the AIDS epidemic. In the book, Ronald Reagan is president, and the Son of Sam has just been apprehended, but the feelings and attitudes are so relatable that they make the narrative feel simultaneously timeless and modern.
I’m not a fan of trilogies, but Hating Olivia was so good I decided to break my own rules and read the Max Zajack trilogy. Lounge Lizard is the second book, and, if the first forced readers to draw comparisons to them, this second offering cements SaFranko as an author whose name belongs on any list that has Charles Bukowski, Knut Hamsun, and Henry Miller. Writing that’s smart, brutally honest, and this fun to read is rare, but it seems to be the only way SaFranko can write.
Gabino Iglesias is writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Gutmouth and a few other things no one will ever read. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.