Three Delays by Charlie Smith

Critics generally agree that Charlie Smith’s Three Delays is remarkable for its sentence-level successes. (One noteworthy writer, Rick Moody, was particularly enthusiastic in his praise for Three Delays.) It shares a fair bit with Hating Olivia: A Love Story by Mark SaFranko, another great book recently published by Harper Perennial. Both novels center around two semi-masochistic partners in love, fueled invariably by drugs, shame, what is at one point referred to as a kind of “feral sadness,” and an unshakeable sense of boundless wonder for the mystery of interpersonal human relations, the ever-present “Why?” at the heart of any love.

It’s unfair to write a review, even one this brief, of Smith’s book without mentioning his estimable abilities as a prose stylist. He sometimes bends rules of grammar in favor of amplifying a sentence’s musicality, and his writing displays a syntactical dexterity that occasionally recalls writers who wrote under the wing of Gordon Lish, particularly Barry Hannah. In Three Delays, readers regularly get sentences like this one, which exhibits a combination of Smith’s natural lyricism (“crucifixiated minions would circulate”) and his strong command of the vernacular voice (“God style”):

Once in a while the mission van would pull up at the park and a couple of his crucifixiated minions would circulate among los barrachos, passing out leaflets and offering aid, God style.

And paragraphs such as:

Back home I listened to her on the other side of the house, mouse approximations of human yearning, squeals and shudders converted into sighs, the languor of an afternoon become cheap songs on the radio, sounds of fake weeping. Disenchantment — for two weeks that had been her subject. It was clear she hated me. I slunk around like a stool pigeon.

Or:

Everything in the universe sang with vivid meaning, exclusively and irreproachably itself. The Gulf gently patted the sand, reassuring it, sad little scared earth, baby brother, sleep well.

A long prose poem, Three Delays makes the disenchanting — the ugliness and violence of forever fractured love — enchanting and the pitiable lovable. Every page a lyric sheet, cover-to-cover a songbook, it features Godardian dialogue and interior monologues, as well as vivid, poetical descriptions of physical scenescapes. (In describing oceanic settings, the word “coral,” one of my absolute favorites, recurs.) While Smith’s schizophrenic plot and difficult main characters may, as Anthony Doeer remarked in his New York Times Book Review, at times tire, they never overwhelm (or underwhelm) to the point of fed-upedness or fatal annoyance. Though, being one hundred pages shorter than Smith’s book, in terms of pacing, and concision, I’d argue that Hating Olivia is Three Delays’s superior.

Three Delays’s non-logical movements, twists and turns, asides, digressions into solipsism and navel-gazing, rarely ever hinder the mesmerized reader, who’s too busy being wowed by Smith’s seemingly endless supply of affecting turns of phrase. Like the best Godard films, Three Delays can be best understood less as a single story than as a series of strung moments, featuring strung out “cutups,” lowlifes, and lovelorn pleasure-seekers looking to lazily take what they can from the world and from each other. Filled with wisdom and lines that roll, pop, glide and glisten, it’ll appeal to fans of Lishian fiction and readers who, like Smith’s characters, self-identify as “soul-searching” self-punishing, hopeless romantics.

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