I’m reminded of a scene from My Stepmother Is an Alien, a truly terrible late-‘80s Dan Ackroyd flick (I would say “comedy”, except that it’s not really all that funny), in which the titular alien, played by Kim Basinger, is going through the Ackroyd character’s home library. It turns out that she can “read” a book by placing her arm inside the inside cover, and derive sheer pleasure in the reading experience in all of but a few short moments. Well, in what’s probably the film’s best gag, or the most memorable one (since it has been more than two decades since I’ve seen the film), Basinger’s character comes to Stephen King’s The Shining, puts her arm in it, grimaces, and throws it back on the bookshelf.
Well, reading Kelly Braffet’s Save Yourself is a little like sticking your arm inside a book and involuntarily flinching. It’s that kind of bleak fiction. I bring up allusions to that awful Ackroyd movie for another reason though. Braffet is the wife of fellow literary novelist Owen King, who happens to be the youngest son of horror writer Stephen King. So Braffet is part of the King immediate family, and anyone with an even a passing interest in Stephen King may be tempted, for that reason, to pick up Save Yourself, a challenging novel that, according to the author in the acknowledgements section, took five years to write. (And Stephen King also had somewhat of a hand in this novel’s creation, as Braffet thanks “Steve and [his wife] Tabby King” in the acknowledgements for providing some kind of nebulous writing help.)
Save Yourself is the kind of book, however, that might take you five years to read, as it is so unflinchingly dark that even eyeballing it for even a protracted session might lead you to want to slash your wrists out of desperation. Or, if not that, it may want you to pull down your blinds, light some candles and listen to the Cure’s Pornography on endless repeat. Let me put it this way: if I hadn’t had an obligation to pen a review for PopMatters, I might not have finished the book. Or, at the very least, read it in slow chunks, when I was in whatever mood – happy, sad or otherwise – where I felt that I might be able to appreciate it.
The story is told mostly through two separate viewpoints in alternating chapters. The first is from Patrick Cusimano’s. He’s a twenty-something lowlife that his entire family and much of the Pennsylvanian small town he lives in loathes. His family hates him because he was the one who turned in his father to the police after said dad drove drunk, and hit and killed a popular family’s young son while coming home from a bar with his car. The rest of the town hates Patrick because he took 19 hours to turn his dad into the cops, which, of course, in the small-town mindset of its inhabitants, wasn’t nearly soon enough.
Patrick’s life is so complicated and messed-up when we first meet him that he’s quit his warehouse job in favour of a lesser job as a convenience store clerk. A 17-year-old Goth girl named Layla (yes, after the Clapton song) becomes infatuated with him, and it isn’t long before he’s taken the hook of said jailbait full line and sinker. However, by the end of Chapter One, he’s also sleeping with his brother’s girlfriend, Caro. And if that wasn’t quite awkward enough, Patrick, Caro, and his brother Mike all live in the same house the two brothers grew up in.
The second viewpoint is from Verna, the 13 or 14-year-old sister of the teenaged Goth girl mentioned above. It turns out that Verna’s life is pretty miserable, too: her parents are unrelenting fundamentalist Christians, almost as puritan as the Westboro Baptist Church variety. And, as she starts high school, she find herself picked on and bullied because her parents took up a crusade to have a popular biology teacher there fired because she taught sex ed to her students. Eventually, Verna starts inevitably falling in with the wrong crowd (vampiric Goths, it would turn out) as the bullying becomes more and more severe and relentless.
As you can tell from that synopsis, Save Yourself is a pretty punishing book, and it is to Braffet’s credit that she paints the misery of her main characters as honestly and accurately as possible. Reading the Verna chapters, for instance, may transport you back to high school (shudder) and all of the merciless name-calling that you, the reader, may have experienced (and I’m assuming that if you’re reading this review, you’re probably a bookworm, and probably weren’t a member of the jock or cheerleading caste). Braffet has an unflinching eye for detail, and reading Save Yourself is like passing a particularly bad traffic accident that you absolutely cannot pull your eyes away from.
However, that’s a primary problem with Save Yourself: while there may be a place for dark and brooding literary fiction, I have the same issue with this book that I had with Andrew Porter’s In Between Days, reviewed here at PopMatters last year. Both books are just so unrelenting in their darkness, and have protagonists who don’t, well, “protag”, that it becomes not only hard to really care about the characters and their plights, but you simply begin to marinade in bleakness as a reader the farther that you go along.
In fact, by Chapter Nine, when Patrick thinks to himself, “Or he could move to Oklahoma, join the rodeo circuit, and get stomped by a bull,” you have to wonder why he doesn’t do exactly that. (Well, maybe save the getting stomped by a bull part.) I mean, if the entire town, and your brother, is against you for turning your dad into the authorities for doing a bad thing, it should probably cross a reasonable person’s mind at some point that, “Hey, maybe I should move a few towns over where nobody really knows me, and I can get a chance to start over on a clean slate.” But he never does.
Instead, at the start of Chapter Three, he considers suicide, “not because he didn’t want to live, but because it seemed the most leakproof way of making sure the situation [him sleeping with his brother’s girlfriend] went away forever, and forever was exactly how long he wanted to avoid having a conversation with Mike about how he and Caro had slept together.” Please. Play me the world’s smallest violin. You’ve done something wrong, and you don’t want to do anything about it that might put things right and good. Like, you know, maybe moving out of the house…
Similarly, in the case of Verna, the assaults on her at school get more and more brazen as time progresses, and she never thinks to tell someone, like a guidance counselor, what’s going on. She does go to the principal at one point after some graffiti is left on her locker, and the principal doesn’t really care. This does not ring true with reality. Folks, kids have committed suicide over lesser bullying, and school boards and districts have been sued in this day and age for letting such bullying happen. I find it hard to swallow that nobody wanted to do anything over Verna’s situation – she’s openly mocked in class, but the teachers ignore the catcalling – when a school can be held openly liable for such acts.
What’s more, Verna never really sticks up for herself. While there might be a ring of truth in the victimization culture with the sort of never-ending assault from her classmates that she faces on a daily basis, I found it quite hard to believe that she was such a goodie-goodie following in her parents’ footsteps that the thought of punching an assailant in the face never quite occurred to her. You know, I was spat on, picked on, and had bottles thrown at me in high school. But, after one incident where I was nearly tripped on a set of stairs carrying a tray of cafeteria food, I found that enough was enough and I wheeled around, took a pop can off my tray and bashed the guy who tried to trip me in the head with it. While this led to a larger fight, one that got both me and my assailant kicked out of school for a day, you know what? That particular person never bothered me again for the rest of my high school career.
And so, Save Yourself is a hard story to swallow. Because its characters do absolutely nothing to better their particular situations – and nobody else ever intervenes; in fact, when Patrick starts seeing the high-school student, both Mike and Caro think it might be even good for him (!) – it’s hard to really care about the novel as a whole and the people within it. In fact, I have to really wonder what the point of Save Yourself really is. As bad as things are for its characters, these are still First World Problems that they face: nobody’s living in a mud hut wondering where their next drink of fresh water is going to come from.
Granted, with all of that said, Save Yourself does turn into a thriller with ... spoiler alert ... high school bombings and a climax in a convenience store where most of the main characters are either staring down the barrel of a shotgun, or are the ones pointing it. But, by then, it’s too little too late, and the novel ends swiftly with a slight denouement that lasts for a few pages.
Maybe I’m being a bit too harsh here, because Braffet does possess a strong writing gift and her portrait of messed-up small town life does, if not ring entirely true, make you, the reader, really feel the pain and misery that being on the short end of the stick has to offer. I grew up in a couple of small places, and Save Yourself really transported me back to the sort of dead-end life most of the inhabitants that are still there tend to lead. So Braffet does have some skill as a writer, and it’s hard to write her off as a result.
However, if you compare her to her husband, who turned in a similar literary book with Double Feature earlier this year (also reviewed here at PopMatters), you may find that, while Owen King’s book had its own particular faults, at least it was somewhat more ... optimistic, and at least had a main character who begrudgingly came to better himself and his lot in life, and came to appreciate those who surrounded him. Save Yourself, on the other hand, is oppressively negative.
And again, you have to really wonder what the point or the larger issue really is here. Save Yourself is a novel in which nobody really does, and, at the end, you’re left with the lingering feeling that life simply isn’t worth living. All in all, I have to say that unless you absolutely must read everything Stephen King and his immediate family has committed to fiction, Save Yourself is pretty much a book not worth investing time in, simply because it’s too Full Dark, No Stars. Well, in my opinion, life’s simply too short, man, to read something so upsetting. Life’s simply too short.