To get the mundane aspects out of the way early: there’s nothing mechanically wrong with Save Yourself. Like much contemporary fiction, including the “thriller” genre to which the book ambiguously aspires, a lot of the novel is heavily dependent on dialogue—either characters conversing with each other or with themselves—punctuated by particularly rendered actions, either sexual or violent. Apart from one scene where the plaintiffs of a lawsuit against one character just happen to be having dinner with the parents of another character in front of the girlfriend of a third character—a convergence that is not made explicit in the narration but still manages to come off as a bit convenient—the book moves along steadily without any terribly rough edges. The characters, as uniformly damaged as they each are, have their own voices and their own perspectives. Patrick moves through his days like a zombie. His brother Mike drinks and rages. Mike’s girlfriend Caro is constantly ducking for cover and running from her past. Sisters Layla and Verna both crack—in different but predictable ways—under the overbearing piety of their parents, making them both easy targets for their more sociopathic peers. These are some troubled, broken people and the desperation piled up around them no doubt has the potential to provide a solid dramatic footing.
I’m usually loathe to refer to the marketing efforts for a book, but in this case some of the jacket copy presents the story’s central problem. I suppose being a writer who is also Stephen King’s daughter-in-law has its perks, since Dennis Lehane blurbs Save Yourself as “an electrifying tomahawk missile of a thriller,” which is at best a generous application and at worst a gross misappropriation of the term. If a thriller is meant to be a sort of literary roller coaster, Save Yourself doesn’t quite qualify. It is far too steady a story for that categorization.
On and off over the last 25 years or so there’s been an attempt to create the “literary thriller” category, which could be defined as the application of high literature’s standards to low/genre fiction conventions, or more cynically posited as the MFA crowd remembering how to tell a story. Larry Brown, an author who got lumped into one generation of the literary thriller enthusiasm with his novel Fay, once said that his secret to writing a story was to “sandbag” his characters and then figure out how they were going to get out of the mess. Braffet sandbags her primary character, Patrick, with a broken family and plenty of problems with women, though Patrick doesn’t so much work to get out of his messes so much as passively let it all wash over him. He is defined by his capability for waiting. He waits every night behind the counter of the convenience store where he works. He waits for the police to arrive to pick up his father. He waits for his brother’s girlfriend to expose their affair. Halfway through the book, the only dramatic things that happen are: two characters sleep together, two characters make out, one character is viciously attacked in a high school bathroom. A number of other things have happened in the past: a drunk-driving tragedy, a spectacular good-girl meltdown, but those are all facts on the ground at the start of the story rather than events we get to see.
The book’s climactic showdown involving all of the broken characters comes very late in the book, so late that there’s barely any denouement (the book ends four pages later). Save Yourself finds itself in a strange place in the genre spectrum. In a more literary work, like in Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter, such an event would have joined the other history for the characters to recover from; we’d have watched them rebuild and in some manner change. In a book following thriller conventions more closely, we’d have seen a little bit more of an afterword and know that things had changed for the better. We don’t get either form of closure in this novel, and so it ends ambiguously, which is clearly a more realistic view of the world, but not particularly good drama.
One postscript about genre and this book: From Paramus and Thisbe all the way up to the many TV dramas on second-tier cable channels, the countless volumes of manga or seasons of anime series, and the much maligned “Young Adult” segment of fiction, both writers and readers are consistently drawn to stories of extreme hardships endured and overcome —or perhaps more gratifyingly/realistically, succumbed to—by young adults. There is something reassuring and misinformingly innocent about these stories, with their insistence that good perseveres, that each person’s innate capability will come in handy. In this era, the market for teen drama—whether that’s a show on The CW or missing-blonde-girl coverage on CNN—is quite consistently middle-class and white. Safe from the majority of violent crime, insulated from institutionalized poverty and cheer-led into an inflated sense of competence, that segment of the culture gets its self-esteem bolstered by these stories. “Even in the face of ridiculous violence and tragedy, we triumph,” these stories whisper to their readers, “and even if you never have to stare down the barrel of a gun pointed at you—which happens all the time, you know, so be acutely afraid of it happening—you’ll be on the winning side.” Meanwhile, for every shooter in white, affluent suburbs, there are dozens of black and hispanic teenagers lost to urban violence that is more constant, more wearing on a daily basis than any of these stories could convey. But those kids’ stories aren’t nearly as lucrative.