Loners by Mark SaFranko reviewed by Joseph Ridgwell

I’ve always been a voracious reader, always on the look out for exceptional books that encourage you to look at the world in a different light, get you thinking and wondering, maybe even change your life. But let’s face it these books are incredibly rare, hard to track down, and once you have, read in the blinking of an eye.

You see, I’m not talking about the bloated bestsellers that clog up the turgid book charts, or alleged masterpieces we are bombarded with by an increasingly rudderless publishing industry, or chick-lit, misery-lit, druggie-lit, celebrity-lit or whatever cheesy moniker the bean counters want to label books that are lightweight, ephemeral, and instantly forgettable. I’m talking about books that dare to be different, defy any such lame marketing drone categorisation, and reach for the immortal skies.

And it is here in this rarefied literary air, that discerning and adventurous readers will locate a brand new collection of mind-expanding short stories by American author Mark SaFranko. The book is entitled Loners, and is the third SaFranko volume to be published by independent British publisher Murder Slim Press, following hot on the heels of popular cult favourites, Hating Olivia and Lounge Lizard.

But if fans were expecting more of the same from the brilliant New Yorker they will be in for a shock, for Loners is a huge departure from the first person narrative Max Zajack novels, and veers off into hitherto unknown territory for the majority of SaFranko readers.

However, do not let this put you off, for each and every tale contained within this slim volume is a minor classic, undeniable proof of the author’s mastery of the often neglected short story genre. The collection kicks off with an informative introduction by the renowned American crime writer Seymour Shubin, who hails Loners as “a collection of brilliant short stories that had me twisting inwardly as I read them…They are magnificent.”

And he’s not wrong. For from the very first story, ‘The Man in Unit 24,’ the author has the reader on tenterhooks, turning each page with their heart in their throat or mouth, but definitely not where it should normally be. And from here on in there is little respite, Alley Night, At the Hacienda, Alone, Life Change, and Acts of Revenge grab the reader’s attention from start to finish, leading them down chilling dead ends and false turnings, but ultimately to thrilling climaxes.

Unluckily for me I was reading Loners late at night in an isolated cottage on the East coast of England and by the time I reached the creepy seventh story, ‘Just Next Door, ‘ I was beginning to hear noises, see things, and feel decidedly spooked. Yes, these stories are bleak, dark, and downright scary, but ultimately the end result is an incredibly life-affirming and rewarding literary experience, a rarity in these troubled and culturally trashy times.

So there you have it, “Loners” by Mark SaFranko probably the best collection of short stories to be published this year. But don’t take my word for it, go out and purchase a copy and see for yourself. Just be warned, reading these stories alone at night is not for the faint-hearted or those of a nervous disposition, but nevertheless highly recommended.

A Thigh-Length White Leather Boot by Joseph Ridgwell

It was back in the early days. I was sitting outside the bar with my noon beer, a couple of lumps of ice floating in the tall glass. The ice diluted the strength somewhat, but in the tropics it was either that or warm beer. The girls were sat at a table opposite. Nut, Min, and Poo, busy making small talk. Poo was wearing a short, short skirt. I eyed up her smooth thighs on the sly, as I perused a week old copy of the Bangkok Post.

As this uneventful scene was played out a group of glamorous Swedes walked past. They looked like some living poster of the Nazi’s Aryan ideal. They didn’t even look at our bar, but headed straight to the Scandinavian meatball restaurant next door. That’s where all the Scandinavian travellers went. I think it was the huge Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish flags flying from the rooftop that enticed them in.

I stopped eyeballing Poo’s silky thighs and turned my visual attention to the Swedish girls. Shit, they were all lookers, and an old samba standard popped into my head. I re-arranged the words a little,‘Tall and tan and blonde and lovely, the girls from the frozen fjords pass by. And when they pass, Ridgwell takes a sip of his cold beer and goes – ah!’

On hearing this the Thai girls stopped aimlessly gossiping and gave me their usual line, ‘Eeh, Joe bah ting tong!’ They chorused.

I sat their poker-faced. Was I crazy? It was possible. Sometimes when I looked in the mirror, a sort of demented reflection leered back at me.

With the glamorous Swedes out of the picture and my beer all but drunk, I decided it was time for another of my famous ice cream runs, ‘Ice cream?’ I offered into the stultifying and somewhat fetid air.

The Thai girls looked up in keen expectation.‘Yah!’ they cooed expectantly.

With that I became overly serious. I jumped onto the Bar’s one and only moped and gazed into the distance like some intrepid explorer or long forgotten frontiersman. Then I kicked started the engine and turned to the girls,‘What’s my fastest time again?’

Nut held up the stopwatch and pointed her feet in the air. To this day I’m not sure why she pointed her feet in the air, but she always did point her feet in the air,‘12 min, 7 sex,’ she replied. Continue reading

Race With the Devil by Joseph Ridgwell

(reprinted from Savage Manners, with permission)

Some nights, strange things happen, unusual events occur, where the dark side of the moon can be revealed to your broken soul. I was on the back end of a three-day binge that had started Friday lunchtime in the boozer. I was sitting in the back seat of a cab next to a black brass from an East End sauna, and heading to the Elephant & Castle. The Elephant & Castle? The brass was leaning her head against my shoulder and rubbing a scabby-looking thigh against one of mine. The windows of the dirty cab were steamed up. I wiped the nearest to me with the sleeve of my jumper and peered through. Outside it was just beginning to get light. It was around 5AM Sunday morning.

The brass kept whispering in my ear. Her breath smelt of crack, whiskey, and strangely, boiled rice,‘When we back to mine, we’re ganna get fucking on it, right down and dirty.’
‘Yeah, baby,’ I replied. I felt a small stirring in my groin region, but kept staring out of the window, recalling random events from the binge.

Friday night passed in a whirl of drink and cocaine. I’d gone out straight after work, with my friend Javed. Beers, G&T, red wine, cigarettes, then a quick dash to meet our connection, and finally onto a lap dancing club. At some point we lined up a couple of personal lap dances and with the beer goggles on the girls all appeared like stunning princesses. But you know what its like, the stripper is flashing her little man in a boat at you, fake tits swinging inches from your nose, brown-eye winking, and the next thing you reach out a hand for a free grope, or in this case, I reached out a hand for a free grope. And that was it, the girl freaked out, the bouncers came a running, and seconds later we’re standing in the street, scratching our heads, licking our wounds, and wondering where to go next.

The next place to go to was a brass house in Shoreditch. It was one of those eastern European establishments, junkie-fuck sex slaves, run by Albanian mobsters and Russian Mafia. By this time I was almost falling over drunk. I found myself in a room with a tall brunette. I attempted to take my trousers off, but fell onto the bed, helpless. The brunette mumbled in Polish, or Lithuanian or something, and then stripped and jumped into bed with me. I got a mouthful of nipple before we both sparked out with valid excuses: I was hammered and she was probably on her fifteenth shag of the long night. Continue reading