There are few templates more effective than a ‘coming of age’ story. Take a naïve, flawed character, throw them into ‘life happens’ blender, hold down puree for about three hundred pages, and voila, you have yourself a protagonist changed (usually) for the better. When it works, you often wind up with a story that has the potential to resonate with readers young and old. Blending contemporary elements with a time-honored premise, on every level, Casey Lown’s blackhearted dramedy SAFELIGHT works.
Even for a struggling writer, Emily Fillan has had quite the year. But of all the ingredients on the crap-sandwich life has handed her, a list that includes a nervous breakdown, her father’s death, and a premature exit from college, it’s the crippling case of writer’s block that Emily finds the most concerning. During her attempts to settle her estranged father’s affairs, Emily encounters Joe, a proverbial blast from her past. Immediately smitten, Emily soon realizes that Joe, an addict who’s in a load of trouble, may be more than she bargained for. Torn between her head and her heart, Emily decides to try and save Joe from himself, a quest that just so happens to give her a whole new perspective on her father. While Emily is not without her own lifetime of baggage, Joe Corner is far from a mere reclamation project, and their relationship presents our protagonist with a whole new set of challenges. What follows is a no-holds-barred coming of age story, one where Emily learns that, sometimes, the only way out is through.
Be it the biting dialogue or the vivid scenery, Lown takes every opportunity to underscore the angst permeating much of this novel, a point exemplified in lines like “Emily pressed her forehead against the passenger window and counted the bagged, molding newspapers in her front yard,” or “Every morning the house felt less like a memorial and more like the site for her future.” But there’s more to SAFELIGHT than evocative prose. Emily’s relationships—with the memory of her father, with her drug-addled boyfriend, and most importantly, with herself—are the heart and soul of this novel. In her attempts to write herself the future she’s always wanted, Emily’s continued grappling with the present slowly begins to change her perspective on the past. It’s heavy territory for sure, and just the sort of narrative many an author has tried to translate into a lifting triumph, only to wind up with something that feels like Sallinger ‘for dummies.’ Lown, on the other hand, succeeds on nearly all fronts. When SAFELIGHT goes dark, it goes pitch black, but the judicious doses of humor and a handful of truly captivating verbal exchanges provide the reader with slivers of daylight whenever things start to feel a bit too heavy. Lown also keeps the middle-class navel-gazing to a minimum, balancing Emily’s propensity for self-loathing with a messy romantic subplot that feels wonderfully (and sometimes painfully) authentic. No unlike some of Emily St. John Mandel’s earlier work, there’s an addictive quality to Lown’s writing that manages to transform what might otherwise feel like a dreary ode to hopelessness into a gripping page-turner. High praise, but earned.
A coming-of-age dramedy with a clever, sardonic edge, Casey Lown’s SAFELIGHT is a potent, superbly written novel that pushes boundaries, and maybe even a button or three, all the while showing that the road-less-traveled is sometimes the only way forward.
~James Weiskittel for IndieReader