Review by April Line
David Olimpio’s This Is Not a Confession (Awst Press, 2016) is at turns eloquently self-conscious, wry, and lyrical. The writing is poetic in moments, grappling in others, and spans a range of events in Olimpio’s life, from his youth as a swimmer and a victim of sexual abuse to adult commuter, gym member, and a myriad of quandaries in his sexuality.
Some of the narrative and structural choices Olimpio makes are familiar, choices that arise from the wresting and writhing that marks making one’s life into art. The volume itself is petite with thick pages, an aesthetic joy, full of his excellent use of sentence fragments and lovely cadence—he is a writer’s writer—of which the collection should have been a masterwork. And it was not without its’ distinctions. In fact, it contains a neurotic, wounded subject, sex writing, and relentless self-scrutiny.
A few times, the pieces remind me of David Sedaris’s masterful way of telling two stories in parallel: now in the present and now in some recollection, tying it all together in a coalescive moment of relevance for both stories. While none of the pieces are Sedaris-style hilarious, Olimpio’s breathtaking sharpness, wit, and unflinching approach to what is not supposed to be presentable is darkly funny. At its least self-conscious, the writing and its subjects reminded me of Raymond Carver’s.
The volume itself is petite with thick pages, an aesthetic joy, full of his excellent use of sentence fragments and lovely cadence—he is a writer’s writer…
In fact, the prose is so tight, especially in the first set of essays, that it seems too careful, too edited. The way we neurotic, self-effacing writers do: We cull and chop and hate ourselves until all of the original electricity and spirit are gone, and what remains is safe, competent, admirable, but missing something.
I usually love essays that converse with another text, concept, cultural marker; but here it works inconsistently. Olimpio scaffolds some of his essays with childhood fairy tales, numbers, time, Radiolab podcasts, and loads of subheadings. Sometimes these choices feel like avoidance. Olimpio reads as an unreliable narrator of his own life.
For in the brief “Landing Punches,” Olimpio writes, “I like the idea of being careless and irrational, though I’m rarely either. I still like hurting myself. Or finding the right people to do it for me,” which reads as confessional, despite the titular claim, and encapsulates a thrumming tension that pervades the whole collection. Olimpio is both defensive and unapologetic throughout, both confessing and denying at once—anticipating a reader’s latent judgements, as if he expects her to stop him and demand an apology. But he has no intention of apologizing.
Still, implicit apology energizes the essay, “This Is Not a Confession.” In it, Olimpio recounts a series of brief, connected encounters between himself, his wife, and a woman named Monica. He chooses to reveal moments in which he behaves carelessly and irrationally. As if confessing without self-judgement is his ticket to finally not feeling shame. Rough center of the piece is a relatively long rant about Honey, Olimpio’s dog, who is most certainly not apologizing, and, Olimpio theorizes, not capable of it. He writes, “It’s a kind of pathetic fallacy that dogs can feel remorse… They don’t apologize for being who they are and knowing what they like.”
I want to enthusiastically recommend This is Not a Confession. What blocks me from doing so is that the collection feels both defensive and unfinished. It’s as if Olimpio stopped two-thirds of the way through the process, threw up his hands and said, “I can’t do it anymore.” He wants this work to be post-confessional and post-apology, even though it’s probably impossible, especially as a neurotic, self-aware person, to live or write a life without a series of confessions and apologies. He’s #sorrynotsorry. He’s on and off the record.
Which is maybe the point, and maybe that point is simply not my aesthetic preference. But on the whole, the collection avoids committing to either apology or confession, to the intellectual or the raw, to the ironic or the earnest, to being a stunning combination of some or all of those things.