A review of LONERS by Mark SaFranko

'I learned pretty much everything I know about writing from Georges Simenon,' the American novelist Mark SaFranko declared, with characteristic honesty, in a newspaper article back in 2007. If there is a work among SaFranko’s extensive fictional oeuvre which most reveals the Belgian master’s influence, I think it has to be Loners, his memorable 2008 short story collection. Spread over nine very different stories – and stripped for the most part of the youthful élan that underscored SaFranko’s novelistic tour-de-force Hating Olivia Loners takes us on a white-knuckle ride through the unchartered margins of contemporary American society, forcing us to look into all those grisly suburban nooks and crannies seldom explored by modern authors. The writing style throughout the book is beautifully sparse and chiselled, almost lapidiardian in its Simenon-like simplicity. The characters are portrayed with strikingly graphic realism. Fans of SaFranko’s Max Zajack’s novels will no doubt appreciate the confessional tone found in stories such as ‘Just Next Door’ and ‘Acts of Revenge’, but I believe that the collection’s true power lies in its unflinchingly humanistic angle of focus and the way it treats ageing gigolos and bankrupt executives, hard-boiled drifters and cuckolded husbands, struggling artists and even serial killers with the same sense of non-judgmental detachment. There is Amy Whitehall, for example, a worn-out motel owner caught in an asexual limbo after the inexplicable disappearance of her husband. There is Bradley Polchick, the sneering murderer-rapist who is at pains to keep his despicable crimes from his doting mother. There is the tragic figure of PJ Turner, a former Broadway star who is barely able these days to afford his medical bills. SaFranko’s offers us all these characters without any ancillary commentary or moralistic explanations, letting us form our own opinions and evaluations. My two favourite stories in the collection were probably ‘Echoes’ and ‘Life Changes.’ In the former we come across Kardlin, a hardened ex-con who finds himself back on the streets after a long stretch inside. Rootless and cut off from all family ties, he ends up drifting back to Minersville, the town where he was born and spent most of his youth. Though he tells himself that he is only heading there to see how much the place has changed over the years, in his innermost psyche he is secretly hoping to bump into Echo, his former girlfriend. When he at last reaches his provincial destination, Kardlin not only manages to track down his old belle, but somehow manages to wrench her away from her current boyfriend. The eventual denouement is both mundane and unexpectedly brutal, triggered as it is by a violent rush of last-minute self-awareness..... ‘Life Changes’, too, is a story about geographical displacement and broken expectations – only this time the protagonist is a city cop trying to escape his increasingly chaotic metropolitan lifestyle. Lee is a typical SaFrankian ‘loner’ – adrift in a hostile world, his self-pity tempered by an almost fatalistic sense of resignation. In a moment of weakness, he tries to commit suicide, but right at the end he thinks of his infant son and drags himself back to the land of the living. From then on he exists in a solitary penumbral world, working without respite yet continually thinking about his estranged wife and her lover, spending his leisure hours in a state of alcohol-fuelled moroseness. I cannot think of a more apt piece to end this remarkably powerful collection of stories.