Design by Evelyn Mousigian

Sharing one’s work in front of a crowd is debatably one of the most vulnerable experiences known to humankind — baring your heart and mind so publicly, fearing that steely judgment that will emanate throughout the room. It sounds nothing short of unnerving. However, any aspiring writer or poet must stifle their fears and open themselves up to the public eye and the inevitable criticism that goes along with it.

Graduate students in the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program, a second-year fiction and poetry class, had to do precisely this. Standing in front of a crowd at the Mark Webster Reading Series, an event held on Friday evenings, these writers read their works in progress aloud to a dimly lit audience. They were evidently equipped with a veritable arsenal of experience, their work packed with graspable nuance and personal detail that only a live reading could help realize. There were a number of aspiring graduate writers selected to read on different days, but the one that stuck out to me was Josh Olivier.

Olivier is a fiction writer currently working on his novel, “Goodness,” who focuses heavily on themes of redemption, love, California class divisions and, of course, goodness, to name a few. His plot and character storylines develop strongly from these themes. Hailing from California himself, Olivier focuses on avoiding the mystification and romanticism of the state; rather, he delivers a raw, multifaceted view of the state as a means of both propelling his story forward and keeping it grounded. The novel itself chronicles narrator Billy, who attempts to grapple with the recent death of and assault rumors about Kobe Bryant while navigating a complicated romance and discovering his own abilities as an artist. Olivier even states that the novel is about “recognizing when your heroes need to be buried.” He begins his reading of chapter one with a shaky breath, often stopping to guzzle down water to soothe his crackly voice.

The narrator discusses the death of Kobe Bryant in detail, invoking the inevitable reaction from the audience: Why is this relevant? To most, the death of Kobe Bryant is not personally significant. Regardless of one’s relation to Kobe Bryant or basketball, the narration is somehow riveting. Not a single glazed eye was in the room. Page after page of the first chapter discusses the basketball star, demonstrating the narrator’s almost childlike attachment to Bryant. This attachment feigned security in a broken family, given Billy’s father’s inhumane cruelty and struggle with Parkinson’s disease, and his mother’s search for new companionship. For Billy, the death of Kobe Bryant was not just the death of an influential basketball player, but the death of a childhood hero and coping mechanism. Of course, after childhood comes growing pains, which is how Olivier chooses to introduce Kobe Bryant’s sexual assault allegations and the swirl of controversy that followed.

Even from a read-aloud of his novel, the imagery and nuance was striking. When discussing Billy’s struggle with the swarming allegations against Bryant, Olivier visualizes this juxtaposition with the phrase, “I had trouble distinguishing the smog from the sky’s natural gray.” It’s even more fitting given the excess fog that caused Bryant’s fatal helicopter crash. Olivier describes Bryant as appearing “larger than death,” further demonstrating the massive expectations Billy set on Bryant’s shoulders and how, inevitably, these expectations were threatened by media and accusations.

Particularly notable was how Olivier’s work felt shockingly nonfictional, as though Olivier was standing there, delivering his own story and monologue. It takes incredible strength for an author to embody their writing so clearly. Perfecting the minuscule details and descriptions, Olivier placed himself in the shoes of his character, and it was almost impossible to differentiate the two. Olivier was deeply rooted in his work as he familiarized the reader with descriptions of California, the popular Staples Center and the lasting impact Bryant had.

Josh Olivier did an outstanding job, not only at communicating the unfamiliar but at taking an outlet as unexpected as Kobe Bryant and turning it into a sweeping story about navigating life after the loss of a pillar of guidance and stability.

Daily Arts Contributor Irena Tutunari can be reached at tutunari@umich.edu.