Saving Laura by Jim Satterfield
If a reviewer is bold enough to describe a writing style as simple, this is often taken as a criticism. The reason, I suppose, is that children write short sentences, often avoiding the use of long words, and few would call their work “literature”. So, over the years, a pejorative meaning has come to be attached to the use of the word. Yet, of course, some writers are famous for the simplicity of their writing style, praised for what critics call minimalism in language, i.e. distilling everything down to the bare minimum required to say what you mean or avoiding the use of any words deemed unnecessary (or redundant) (sic). So in Saving Laura by Jim Satterfield (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) we go with a first-person narrative set in 1979 and written in a very simple style. Although we’re told at the end that this account of events was written much later in the author’s life, most of the time we’re left to believe this is a contemporaneous account of his “adventures” by Lee Shelby, a twenty-one year old English major with a liking for Ernest Hemingway. Now before you get your hopes up, this is not even remotely like the Hemingway style. But the approach is similar in spirit, i.e. the text is structured in short paragraphs and wherever possible, short sentences. The vocabulary is mostly simple but, because we’re often on the run and under pressure, the English is quite vigorous and forceful. So the result avoids being plain by virtue of its simplicity. The directness means the plot is moved quickly along and the thriller qualities are enhanced.
However, style on its own is never enough. There must be sufficient sustenance in the plot to satisfy the reader. The problem actually comes from the writing style. If you strip out all the superfluous, that means you’re leaving out all those interesting little details and asides that can add character to the book. Sometimes passages of description setting the scene or sketching the people involved add an extra dimension to the text by rounding it out. And, to my mind, that’s where this book is a little shaky. In essence what we have is a young man driven to rash acts out of love. Without thinking too clearly how this will all play out in the future, our heroic idiot robs a drug dealer as he’s buying 5 kilos of Peruvian flake, and makes off with both the drugs and the $75,000 purchase price. He’s thought far enough ahead to plan where to hide except nothing quite works out as he hopes. The accumulating problems force him back to the scene of the crime and we follow him as he tries to save himself (and Laura, the girl he loves).
As a plot idea, this is great for a back-of-the-envelope pitch to movie moguls. There are legends about people selling ideas but then failing to deliver in the detail. In this case, the hero’s inexperience means he’s completely at sea. The only way he can therefore get back to shore is by relying on other people to help him. Although the first person in this daisy chain is more or less in his plan from the outset, most everything else that happens is through coincidence or accident. People prove unexpectedly helpful and skillful, there are ferocious animals that (in)conveniently maim and kill (yes, there’s real drama), and the legal system ends up getting bent out of shape to accommodate what our hero and all his helpers did (and they broke a lot of laws). I’m not saying it’s all unrealistic. Taken as individual episodes, life can sometimes work out like this. But once it’s all accumulated into a single plot, the whole feels very contrived. Take the question of animals as a hypothetical example. If an author introduces a skunk, the odds are it will spray out noxious substances at some point. That’s what the stereotype does if it feels threatened. For me, this is a real problem. As a backstory, the author may legitimately feel obliged to explain why his fifty-year old protagonist is called Skunk Boy (it was an unfortunate incident on the way to school that blighted his life). But if the skunk befriends the boy and, when a school bully approaches, the skunk runs forward and sprays the bully, the response of the reader is rather different. Now how are we to react when, later in the same book, the author introduces a parrot that can make the noise of a gun being fired? This is not deus but animals ex machina. You’ll be relieved to know there are no skunks or noisy birds in this novel, but you get the idea.
If I can’t take pleasure in the prose, I look for satisfaction in seeing a good plot well executed. Sadly Saving Laura falls on the wrong side of the plot line. That said, you may well enjoy this simple and sometimes quite elegant prose enough to carry you through a slightly thin thriller plot. Your choice.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.