It’s hard to describe a book like Barry Smith’s mysterious Only Milo but, considering I’m sitting here tap-tap-tapping on my keyboard, you know I’m going to give it a shot!
So we have Milo, a retiree whose stacks of novels have stayed buried in his closet for decades. Though he’s a prolific novelist who devotes much of his time to the craft, he has nothing to show for it — beyond the prerequisite stacks of rejection letters from agents and publishers. When authors finally make it big, these rejections are worn like badges of honor — they’re the giant, “HA — see what you missed out on there, buddy boy?!” of the literary world. But until a struggling writer reaches that pinnacle, he or she is just . . . a struggling writer.
And you know? Milo’s tired of it. He’s tired of the struggling, day in and out. So when a chance encounter with Margaret, a dynamic young publisher, brings the literary fame that much closer to his grasp, he pounces on the opportunity. Of course, pairing up with Margaret also means pairing up with Jose Calderon, her “gem in the rough.” Jose, a young man who has been writing mediocre books in Mexico, has been picked up by Margaret’s company for release rights in the U.S. The only issue? Um, the books are all in Spanish. And how convenient that Milo can actually “translate” them for the company . . .
Well, it turns out Jose’s novels are terrible — from what Milo can actually translate, anyway. Just complete drivel. So what’s he to do? He’s gotten Margaret’s attention, publication is just within his reach . . . even if it’s for another author. What could a little switcheroo hurt? How upset could Jose possibly be — especially if fat checks are rolling in to everyone?
And with one little decision, Milo sets off a chain of events that would make a “CSI” or “Dexter” fan flip the pages incessantly. Told in very short, numbered chapters — usually on a page or two apiece — Milo takes us through the ups of subterfuge and sudden literary stardom before catapulting us back down into the lows after he loses everything. It’s impossible to really talk about the plot without giving anything away, and I definitely don’t want to do that!
As I’ve pointed out in the past, I’m a nervous reader. Very nervous. If I have an inkling that something bad is about to befall a character — like, say, an anvil falling from the skies and cracking open their skull — I’m going to flip furiously through the book until I reach that moment of no return. I can’t amble along, oblivious, knowing that a shoe is about to drop. But trying to do that with Only Milo? Impossible. Of course I knew this was a darkly humorous thriller about life in the literary world, but I couldn’t have possibly predicted all the snake-like twists the story would take. Quite simply, it’s impossible to figure out what’s going to happen.
I’m not a fan of crime shows — I’ll take back-to-back episodes of “Ugly Betty” over “CSI” any time — but I still enjoyed the book for its supremely fast-paced, punchy writing style and short chapters. When reading, it all feels fluid — quick, like water running from a tap. While there is a sustained level of violence in the novel, it’s not overly gory or sick. Milo himself is a completely dead-pan, sarcastic and, ultimately, sympathetic narrator — and despite everything, I still found myself hoping he’d eventually find peace and success in his own right.
Only Milo is definitely a one-of-a-kind read; stylistically, I’ve never read another novel like it. Even the book’s typeface is unique — like an antique typewriter (check out an excerpt and you’ll see what I mean!). You can easily polish this one off in a hour or two, and it’s worth the read. Aspiring writers will grin a little at the chaos and injustice of it all, too. I know I did!
4 out of 5!