Are you interested in getting me to read a particular book? Tell me it has the scruffy appeal of Donald Ray Pollock (my most favorite among favorite authors) and the addictiveness of Breaking Bad. I’ll read it. When I read that Kelly Braffet’s latest novel, ‘Save Yourself’, had both of those attributes – consider me sold.
Patrick Cusimano’s life is not the way anyone would want their life to be, let alone Patrick himself. His father, an alcoholic, finally went too far, hitting and killing a little boy – then fleeing the scene of a crime. He returns to the home he shares with his two sons. Older brother Mike wants to sweep the incident under the rug. Patrick knows that is impossible and calls the police, turning in his dad. He waited 19 hours to do so, earning the scorn of Rachetsburg, PA. To make matters worse Caro, Mike’s troubled girlfriend, took their relationship far beyond platonic, straight to sexual.
Patrick’s status as town monster attracts the attention of local goth teenager Layla Elshere. Layla and her little sister Verna are outcasts at school and the victims of intense bullying. Their strict, religious father campaigned successfully to remove sex education and a favorite teacher from the school system. The school hasn’t forgotten or forgiven either girl. The sisters turn to a group of outcasts to form their own version of a family, only belonging to that family has far darker consequences than either girl could have imagined.
‘Save Yourself’ is very much a novel where the sins of the father are visited up the children. Despite the elder Cusimano’s 15 year prison sentence, Mike and Patrick take the brunt of the blame publicly. Turning in your own father is not enough. The two sons needed to have done it swiftly and immediately. Layla and Verna Elshere are publicly targeted for their father’s outspoken beliefs. All are facing dark paths that they are not responsible for choosing.
The novel primarily intertwines the lives of two very different, very dysfunctional families. Nearly each of the five main characters is capable of arousing both sympathy and revulsion, making the story remarkably touching, yet compellingly dark. Braffet’s prose has a gritty, unsettling elegance, creating vivid, page turning scenes that are just as likely to entrance you as they are to turn your stomach. Naturally I mean this as a complement. The novel is atmospheric and foreboding. As you read, the tension between the characters themselves and the town they inhabit relentlessly builds, as does the suffering the characters endure. The most twisted character in the novel, although a rather minor one, reinforces and perpetuates the idea that salvation and peace come only from pain, sacrifice, and suffering – which he feels is his right to inflict. Layla, who only wants to be noticed and loved, willingly confuses this sadistic torture for true love. Patrick is angry and tired of his father, yet unable to be free of him in a town he cannot seem to leave. He hovers between anger, despair, and nothingness. He is the character I loved most. The others have their own suffering to endure, from a schizophrenic mother to extreme public humiliation to using optimism as ignorance.
The novel reaches a violent, satisfying, yet believable conclusion. I loved it. If I have to give a less than stellar opinion on something, I don’t love the cover (the font’s appropriate though). ‘Save Yourself*’ is as addictive as the aforementioned recommendation promises and has the grittiness of ‘The Devil All the Time’. While it lacks the overwhelming despair of Pollock’s novel, it is no less enjoyable to read. It’s dark fiction done very well. 4(edging on 4.5 for the first half)/5.
I related to Patrick on many levels – from the need to do the right thing to an unfortunate, yet extensive knowledge of all Eagles lyrics to less than stellar early years. Anyone want to trade bad childhood stories? Kidding, kidding. Mostly. Conversely, if anyone wants to share an idyllic, white picket fence childhood story, I love hearing those too. What can I say, I’m a sucker for nostalgia.
When Patrick finally realizes that Layla is likely to stay a part of his life (she won’t seem to go away, at the very least), they are eating nachos – the disgusting kind with that weird-does-not-occur-in-nature cheese. I am recommending Grilled Nachos, the healthier, more palatable version of the convenience store food.
*I received this novel for review in exchange for my honest opinion. ‘Save Yourself’ will be available Aug. 6, 2013. Do yourself a favor and pre-order it.