Mark SaFranko writes prose like a champion pool player shoots eight-ball – with grace, poise, and a seemingly effortless style and precision. What looks easy is difficult – honed after hours of writing, years of experience, and decades of getting it down. What we have before us in God Bless America is a perfect arc of narrative, a back spin to Max Zajack’s childhood, a writer who doesn’t baulk at life’s existential and physical cruelties, a writer who banks on his humour to get him through everyday terrors, who breaks out of the confines of MFA writing schools, who fires a cannon across the bows of mega-publishing houses, chalks up a win for the heirs of Henry Miller, John Fante, and Charles Bukowski, whose sentences are beautiful combination shots, who draws admiration from the French book-buying public, who follows through on the promise of the earlier Zajack novels Hating Olivia and Lounge Lizard, who is not afraid of the foul ball our parents made us play, who doesn’t know the house rules, who does know the intricacies and simplicities inside and outside English, who jacks up the quality level, and who – we hope – will soon be in the money, and racking up the plaudits.
Hating Olivia and Lounge Lizard introduced us to Max Zajack, a man obsessed with sex, orgasms, writing, suicide, and a pure victim of the vicissitudes of luck. He lives in cheap rooms, works at dead-end jobs, drinks to excess, takes drugs, occasionally meets a woman who fascinates him, on top of which he suffers terminal writer’s block. These novels are bleak and hilarious walks on the wild side, illuminated by the diamond spotlight of SaFranko’s prose. God Bless America takes us back in time to Max’s childhood in Trenton, New Jersey. If you enjoyed Henry Miller’s Black Spring (by my reckoning his best novel), Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye (ditto), Harry Crews’ A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, then you will love this book. All of the above novels are genreless – to paraphrase Robert Koehler – they form a “literature of in-betweenness”, hybrid works fusing memoir and fiction.
We follow Max through his childhood and adolescence during the 1950s and 60s. We meet his increasingly psychotic mother, his fire-fighting and put-upon dreamer of a father, his eccentric Polish and Slavic relatives, the local Italian mobsters, the perverted Scout-troop leader, the bullies and the bullied, and the girls and women Max fantasizes about. We follow him through junior school, high school, and a series of dead-end jobs that he endures rather than enjoys, sucking up the experience for future words. The narrative is funny, embarrassing; sometimes, coming way too close to our own experiences for comfort. It’s a novel that reveals as much about the writer’s life as it does American history and culture, particularly the underlying, and sometimes down right in-your-face, violence within the family and society. The past is made real in the evocation of foods, music, cars, movies, sports, and television shows, presented in a language that poeticizes ordinary events and dialogue that makes you think you are overhearing a conversation on a Trenton street corner.
There are some great set pieces – the trip to Canada to stay with Max’s father’s pig-breeding relatives, a summer camp that ends in violence and a tragic secret, and a road trip to Florida to visit another member of Max’s father’s long-lost family – this time a rich one. SaFranko infuses the everyday with psychological heft, is poignant without being melodramatic – the slow breakdown and physical retreat of Max’s mother sadly rendered, the cold heart of the child still aware of the primal connection. The insights into a young boy’s growing maturity, his sexual awkwardness and awakening are pitiless, accurate, and resonant.
This is a novel about the United States of America losing its virginity as it becomes embroiled in the Vietnam War and tries to cope with nation-wide race riots while struggling with a disaffected youth movement and a growing counterculture. A bildungsroman and a roman à clef, God Bless America takes the humorous observation and sexual intensity of Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint and mixes it with raw honesty and brutal naturalism.
Any Cop?: If you add God Bless America to the other Max Zajack novels Hating Olivia and Lounge Lizard, then SaFranko has produced a superbly crafted and well-written trilogy – worthy successor to John Fante’s The Bandini Quartet.