Totally Killer by Greg Olear
“The point is, 1991 was an especially bad year for money. It was a bad year to be unemployed, and a really bad year to be a wet-behind-the-ears college graduate with a sparse résumé and student loans to repay (student loans, I might add, that wouldn’t be tax deductible until the Clinton administration). How bad was it? George Bush peré enjoyed a record-high approval rating in May of 1991, at the end of the Gulf War. Eighteen months later, he lost his bid for reelection. The reason for the Cubs-in-‘69 choke, as famously explained by James Carville, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’
In short, the summer of 1991 was the worst moment in a generation to be in the position Taylor Schmidt was in.”
Olear’s nouveau-noir scene is set with these bleak sentiments, uncomfortably familiar to anyone unlucky enough to be a recent graduate. Twenty-something disillusionment is at an all-time high in the early 90’s, but Olear’s debut novel is entirely relatable to any recent graduate or underpaid, overworked employee. Todd and Taylor share a tiny apartment on East Ninth Street; Todd brings in a meager salary as a photo librarian for API while Taylor schleps around Manhattan in too-tight Nine West pumps and a black wool Liz Claiborne suit, sweatily frustrated by the lack of job openings. Todd soon develops an all-consuming crush on Taylor, looting through her old diaries while Taylor finds a too-good-to-be-true publishing job through the mysterious Quid Pro Quo employment agency. Taylor soon develops an all-consuming crush on Asher Krug, one of the handsomely enigmatic heads of the organization.
As the naive Missourian falls more deeply in lust, she realizes that her swanky new job comes with a price. Asher convinces Taylor that the problems of the world are fault of the baby boomers, and the younger generations have a duty to remove them from their longevity-enhanced positions of power. Asher’s revenge-driven side projects of the Quid Pro Quo agency are immediately appealing to Taylor, an interesting choice of leisure activity for a small-town girl. After Todd loses his meager job and turns to Taylor for help, he quickly becomes sucked into the Quid Pro Quo killing game, a pyramid scheme with flipped loyalties and truth serum.
Olear perfectly captures the early 90’s culture of apathy, which makes Asher’s maniacal conspiracy theories and assassination plans seem all the more vivid. His characters are richly drawn, although Todd is the most compelling of the bunch. Todd, who narrates most of the novel, explains his limited-omniscient perspective at the beginning of Chapter 6:
“The task of writing Taylor’s story has fallen to me because her own voice—unusually high in register, it was, and breathy, like she’s just sucked on a helium balloon—has been permanently silenced. This is her story, not mine, and it would dishonor her memory to tarry on my own recollections, however pleasant the trip down Memory Lane might be.”
As much as the fictional Todd seems to understand that his narrative duties are to focus on Taylor, Olear rarely limits Todd’s voice. His snooping habits turn up a multitude of information on his roommate’s Midwestern background, and Todd pays more than the standard journalistic amount of attention to Taylor’s lengthy list of sexual conquests. Far from a fawning suitor, Todd is equally concerned with discovering the mysteries behind his roommate’s new happy-hour activities and her bra size.
The book is short and snappy, flicking between characters and situations with rapid MTV-style cuts (because MTV actually aired music videos in 1991). The fast pace prevents Olear’s sense of nostalgia from becoming suffocating. Instead of immersing the reader in a The Wackness-like homage to New York’s newly-plaid grunge scene, Olear treads carefully. “Gnarly,” “killer,” and “dude” make noticeable appearances in his characters’ vocabularies, but Olear never sacrifices realistic dialogue for period details.
For anyone who remembers when Times Square was a hotbed of sex shops and peep shows instead of “Disneyland North,” or for anyone who’s ever held a bland series of “McJobs” and has hoped for something better, Greg Olear’s Totally Killer is a fun and refreshing comic thriller.
Reviewed by Stephanie Turza
Totally Killer by Greg Olear
Paper, 288 pp, $13.99
Posted in Reviews