Originally printed by Press Media Group and appeared in the 17 February 2010 issue of The Lynchburg Ledger newspaper.

Apart from William Melvin Kelley’s 1967 black comedy dem, I have never read a book so swiftly in my born day as Totally Killer by Greg Olear (Harper, 2009). I’ll be frank—though I usually just go by Jeff, Jeffro, or Jeffrey, depending on how well you know me—you don’t need to read any further than the next line to know my true feelings regarding this novel: it is absolutely amazing. Stop reading this column right now and high tail it to Barnes & Noble or log on to Amazon.com and snag a copy.

“But I’m at work and am reading your column instead of being productive and can’t high-tail it to Barnes & Noble or log on to Amazon.com because my boss blocked it on our work server,” you say. In that case, quit your job; or at least find an RC Cola machine, pop in some C + C Music Factory, and enjoy the review until you can pick up this novel.

Twenty-three and jobless, the beautifully flawed Taylor Schmidt arrives to the Big Apple in July 1991 a transplant from the rolling hills of Warrensburg, Missouri with an undergraduate degree in English Lit and aspirations of breaking into the world of publishing. What she quickly finds instead are the shuffling, blistered feet of tenderfoot Gen-Xers like herself stretching for city blocks in the sweltering heat, all with resumes in hand, and the sexually overt up-and-downs of power zealot editorial directors.

The pickings slim and competition fierce due to an economic downturn, Taylor stumbles with high heels from one employment agency to the next until being summoned by the Quid Pro Quo employment agency. Led by the august, cocksure Asher Krug, Quid Pro Quo guarantees its adept applicants “jobs to kill for” but at what price?

Written eighteen years later from the perspective of Taylor’s fatally attracted roommate, Todd Lander, Totally Killer is, at first, Lander’s self-confessing memoir—“Once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky, you meet a woman who just does it for you. That was Taylor Schmidt. The chick oozed pheromones. She was sex. And not just for me. Everybody she ever met wanted to sleep with her”—turned cultural satire and murder mystery.

Behind the curtain in this cultural Wizard of Oz in the 1991st year of Anno Domini is a New Kid on the Block, and his name isn’t Jordan Knight or Donnie Wahlberg—it’s Greg Olear, and holy inflation rate of 4.25% is this a page turner, so much so I have third degree burns on the tips of my fingers and soot on the corners of the pages.

Let me pause for a moment and place this novel in its proper historical context.

Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is arrested for eating people. Heavyweight champion of the world Mike Tyson is arraigned for allegedly raping them. (Two separate events) Boyz II Men are on top of the world. Former U.S. postal worker Joseph Harris kills his ex-girlfriend, her fiancée, and two other co-workers, thus resulting in the creation of the phrase “going postal.” Thelma & Louise enter the void that is the Grand Canyon as Harvey Keitel tries in vain to stop them—a cloud of dirt, dust, and gravel choking out his raised arm plea for the two female outlaws to turn back. Rodney King is beaten by the LAPD as an onlooker captures it on film, and the first episode of Friends is still three years away.

[Gasping for that smog stymied LA air (metaphor)]

Yes, this all took place in a single year. That year: 1991. At the epicenter of this cultural epoch within Olear’s Totally Killer—the fall of Bush 41 and the peregrination into the Clintonian era of saxophones and cigars—is the battle between the Baby Boomers, seventy-six million strong and balding, and Strauss and Howe’s 13th Generation, Generation X, all dressed up in flannel with nowhere to go.

Described by Colleen Curran, author of Whores on the Hill, as “American Psycho meets [VH1’s] I Love the 1990’s,” Totally Killer is a total page-turner full of wit, humor, and masterful prose with a made for movie play-by-play that could easily be on the big screen one day starring Scarlett Johansson as Taylor Schmidt as numerous reviews have pointed out. No, I’m serious. I’ll lead the charge to Hollywood myself if I have to. What’s Scarlett Johansson’s number? Get me on the phone with her agent!

I cannot recommend this book enough, particularly for those in the 17-40 age range. If you have a friend who boasts their dislike of reading and books, purchase Olear’s novel for them and see what they say after reading it. You will witness the conversion to one of us: the bookworm. Totally Killer by Greg Olear (Harper, 2009), 272 pgs. Paperback: Fiction. Starting at $11.19 from Amazon.com and $11.96 at Barnes & Noble, or request a copy from your local bookseller.

For more information, visit www.gregolear.com. Stay tuned for next week’s column: an interview with the author, Greg Olear.

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JEFFREY PILLOW is a contributing writer for The Nervous Breakdown and Hoops Addict. He lives in Charlottesville with his wife, daughter, and dog -- three separate entities. A certified basketball junkie, he also loves cheddar cheese and poorly crafted science fiction thriller films involving cold-blooded animals and bad acting. SEE Shark Attack 3: Megalodon. His work has appeared on Yahoo! Sports, USA Today, and 16 Blocks magazine et al. Visit him online at www.jeffreypillow.com.

60 responses to “Quid Pro Quo: A Review of Greg Olear’s Totally Killer

  1. Greg Olear says:

    I think I can say, with absolute honesty, and without hyperbole, that this is the greatest post in the history of TNB.

    But seriously: thanks, man. I’m flattered. And I look forward to reading the interview.


    • Judy Prince says:

      You may be right, Greg. I’ve just bought your book, on the heels of buying Robin Antalek’s “The Summer We Fell Apart”; Jonathon Evison’s “All About Lulu”; D.R. Haney’s “Banned for Life”; and having already read Bord (I mean BRAD!) Listi’s fantastic “Attention. Deficit. Disorder”.

      • Greg Olear says:

        Thanks, Judy. Summer, Lulu, Banned, ADD — those are all great books, it must be said.

        • Judy Prince says:

          I’m really eager for the reads, Greg!

          Me curious: TNB seems to be, among other things, a writers’ group and as close as a face-to-face group as one can get online. Though many writers prefer going it alone, I’ve come to believe that “meeting” with other writers makes sea-changes in one’s writing. I’m new here at TNB, so wonder what your thoughts are on its influence for yours and others’ writing.

        • Greg Olear says:

          I’m a go-it-aloner by nature (as is Duke). It’s the first writing community I’ve been involved with. I’m not much of a joiner (Saturn in the Eleventh House), but attempts at writerly outreach prior to TNB were not successful. Part of that is because I spent my twenties in NYC, and that’s not a conducive place for collegial relations.

          I’ve made a lot of friends here, which is the best thing, but my writing has also improved from being on here. It is, in a way, an elaborate writers group, I guess. Keeps my chops sharp. Plus, Zara sends candy. And also spiders.

        • Richard Cox says:

          I feel the same way, Greg. I love reading the posts here, though sometimes I get behind (like today), but if I’m being selfish I have to admit that I work hard on something before I post it here because I don’t want to fall behind the curve when it comes to quality. TNB has definitely made me a better writer.

          P.S. I posted my review on Amazon today. It should be up in the next day or two. Sorry it took me so long. 🙂

        • Judy Prince says:

          Yes, as you say, Richard, TNB has made you a better writer, and you work hard at it, not wanting to “fall behind the curve when it comes to quality”. Greg, too, says his writing’s improved from being on TNB, it “keeps my chops sharp”.

          Looks like 3 elements at work: 1) Wanting to keep one’s writing as high-quality as others in the group—a kind of friendly, practical competitiveness; 2) A strong, consistent encouraging network, both professional and personal; and 3) Learning by thinking about and commenting on the various writing styles, tones and techniques of other TNBers.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Thanks, Richard! And I agree about working hard on pieces…except for The Feed pieces, because those are more “bloggy.” The Oscars thing I wrote in 20 minutes while my kids were screaming at me.

          And Judy, I think you sum it up quite nicely.

        • Jeffrey Pillow says:

          re Duke: Thanks for the kind words on the review. Banned for Life will soon be getting its go in my column.

        • D.R. Haney says:


          Y’know, not to butter you up or anything, but there are so many great phrases in the TK review: “seventy-six million strong and balding”; “Generation X, all dressed up in flannel with nowhere to go”; “I have third degree burns on the tips of my fingers and soot on the corners of the pages.” And then there’s “two separate events,” which recalls the “two separate entities” of your bio. I chuckle a little every time I pass the bio bit, and hope your wife and dog likewise approve.

        • Appreciate it, Duke. My favorite was the “seventy-six million strong and balding.” The original line was “seventy-six million strong with Type II Diabetes” but I figured that my anger the diabetic crowd.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        I’m much obliged, Judy. I hope that sounds sufficiently Southern and stuff, since I’ve been commenting a lot about Faulkner of late, and I’m meantime aware that you live in Virginia, which is my native state.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Duke, I’m a newbie (since 2002) to Virginia, but it’s been hardwired into my psyche since visiting as a kid on family vacation. Impossible to “explain” one’s tastes, but for me Virginia was “my” place out of all the places we visited, which were, eventually, all of the (then) 48 states. I still remember the meal I ate at Chowning’s Tavern in Williamsburg: Brunswick Stew and apple pie a la mode. I love Charlottesville and the areas near Monticello where you can stare blissfully at the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance—and here in the oceanside part of VA (the Southside as distinct from the Peninsula), the tall long-needled pines set me to dreaming. Family and friends thought I was making a serious mistake by uprooting from the midwest and coming to Norfolk where I knew no one. Yet I’ve never regretted it, though I was terrified at times before I came, wondering if things would work out.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Norfolk was apparently known as a very sleazy town back in the sixties. I haven’t visited in a long time, and even when I was a kid, my family never lingered there. Virginia Beach was our usual summer destination. Also, there were numerous school field trips made to Williamsburg.

          Most of my family lives in the Charlottesville area, where I was raised, and that’s where Jeffrey Pillow now lives, as I’m sure you know. I see the beauty in it now, as I didn’t when I was growing up there. Familiarity breeds contempt, etc.

          I’m glad that you don’t regret moving to Virginia, and that it has, in fact, worked out.

          Oh, and Mr. Pillow? Nice review! I’ll return with specifics later.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Yeah, Duke, that’s what I heard. The reputed “sleazy” part of N’folk had been “cleaned up” by the time I arrived, is now known mostly for its big new oceanfront homes. Some folks credit Mayor Fraim; may be true, I don’t know.

          I chose to live in Norfolk rather than VA Beach bcuz VAB’s Way Touristy; there’re too few public parking areas close to the ocean, so you can’t get to the beach unless you sneak through a hotel back door; and there’s no *there* there; i.e., no Real Downtown. And I gotta have a Downtown. Here in N’folk I’m living within view of Lafayette River, within short driving distance and easy viewing access to the ocean at several points in the city…..but oh those HOT midsummer days—that’s when I’m fortunate to be able to experience the wonderfully moderate climate of England (no mosquitoes, no houseflies, no window screens!! But a few little spiders).

          Didn’t get around much in C’sville (cool that Jeff’s there!), but am always impressed by the folk that went to U VA (well maybe with that one exception of EA Poe) 😉

          I love Richmond’s architecture, wild hilly town, cool downtown, the architectural restoration shops, and biggest ever quality consignment shop (“Hall Closet”) for women’s, men’s and kids’ awesome used clothing. Oh, and Doug Wilder is some kind of dedicated to Richmond—what other politician would run (and win) for mayor after having served as governor?! Richmond, VA’s capitol, needs his and many more folks’ help towards revitalising.

          I’ve witnessed some racial prejudice in VA and find that it’s of a different nature—but no more toxic—than what I witnessed for years in Chicago.

          Our nation needs racial healing as well as class and economics “repairing”. Fortunately, lotsa folks, black and white, are actively working politically and socially towards those ends.

        • Dana says:

          Hi Judy – I’m a pretty frequent reader and commenter here; I just wanted to bust in and say hey. HEY! I live in Suffolk. 🙂 We moved to the area (for good) in 1986 after growing up in Michigan.

          Norfolk is a great little city. So many great restaurants, fun ballpark – The Norva, The Chrysler, etc. One of my best friends lives on Tazewell!

          And one more thing – BFL* is coming along on vacation with me next week. Can’t wait to dive back in!

          *Banned For Life not Brad Fuckin’ Listi

        • Judy Prince says:

          Awesome, Dana—Suffolk (Hampton Roads is loaded with names from England!)!!! I once met a man at the Suffolk airport who gave me a used silk parachute. I used it for curtains in my livingroom. Also, there’s a fantastic but kinda weird bonzai business in Suffolk.

          You mention great restaurants in N’folk….YEAH TOTALLY!! Oh, and one of my friends’ last name is “Tazewell”!

          So you and I are midwestern transplants to VA. I grew up in Grand Rapids then worked for years in Chicago. Where in MI did you live?

          “Brad Fuckin’ Listi”? I thought he was Beard Fartin’ Listi .

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Dana: I have it on good authority that BFL loves vacations. I hope it makes for good company.

          Judy: Actually, Norfolk in its sleazy phase sounds as if it might have made for an interesting visit — but only for a few hours. I only know about it because of something I read about the Vietnam era, and I picture a sort of James Jones atmosphere, with drunken sailors spilling out of loud bars with hookers wearing turquoise eye shadow and shellacked hair.

          As for Virginia Beach, it always felt to me as a child as being about as Californian as an east-coast town could be. I don’t think I’d have that impression if I returned, however.

          I’ve never been all that keen on Richmond, for some reason. My brother, until very recently, lived there, and over the last couple of years I’ve twice gone out drinking in Richmond. That was nice enough, but though you say the town is hilly, it always seems kind of flat to me. I think its flatness may be part of my resistance to it, having grown up with the Blue Ridge Mountains so near.

          I have to disagree about Poe. I think he may be the most interesting student that UVa ever had. There’s a legend, undoubtedly apocryphal, that he set fire to his room while smoking opium. I wish it were true. Meantime, I envy you your English summers. Summer in L.A. is miserable, though we at least aren’t afflicted with much in the way of humidity, and last summer, I have to say, was mild, with only a couple of suffocating heat waves.

      • re Judy – All About Lulu by Evison and Duke’s Banned for Life arrived on my doorstep the very same day. I’m looking forward to both. Also picked up Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries. Read Listi’s novel a few years ago. Reread it again in January. I’ve pretty much learned through TNB, whatever someone recommends, I’m almost sure to like. It’s like a really good rock station here except with books. Lots of good DJs.

    • re Greg – And I can say, without hesitation, I enjoyed the hell out of your novel.

  2. It’s certainly one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

  3. Irene Zion says:

    Totally killer is a fantastic read. The plot keeps twisting and surprising you. Great characters too! It makes you want to forgo sleeping to keep reading.

    Banned for Life is also a fantastic read. It’s a different sort of book, though. You have to read it slowly to savor the people in it. Books are not like apples. Banned for Life is a slow burn that enters your bloodstream. You can’t read it fast.

    Books are not like bananas, either.

    We’re lucky to have both of you on TNB!

  4. Dana says:

    Great review of a great book! Although I’m a wee bit older than the demographic referenced in the review, I’m incredibly immature 😉 and I’m not so decrepit that I have lost all my totally awesome memories from 1991. I loved all the pop culture references.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Dana. Much appreciated.

      The year seems to come up all the time. It was one of those years, for whatever reason.

    • re Dana – Thank you. And thanks for reading the review.

      After I sent this to my editor, I regretted not extending the age range or adding 17-40 (at heart). Though only 10-years-old in 1991, I remember the year vividly. Maybe it was because I have an older sister or was always around older cousins. My aunt did buy me a GNR cassette for Christmas one year.

      I think ’91 was the perfect year for Greg to use. So much happened culturally. When I was writing my review, I realized that going through timelines. I also forgot exactly how screwed up Jeffrey Dahmer was. I mean, yeah, he ate people but I read a long news article with the details regarding what all was found in his home, room, and refrigerator, and holy shit that guy was more than deranged. P.S. When you Google Jeffrey Pillow, you always get search results for Jeffrey Dahmer Pillows. They are a collector’s item so it seems.

  5. I have a TNB shelf now– and I’m not one to do anything crazy like alphabetize or categorize but it only seemed fitting that Totally Killer join Banned For Life and All About Lulu and Attention. Deficit. Disorder. and Slut Lullabies and The Summer of Naked Swim Parties…..

    Next? My shelf is waiting…..

    • Greg Olear says:

      I have a TNB shelf, too.

      It might be a fun exercise to mash up the titles:

      “Totally Killer Slut Lullabies”

      “The Summer We All Fell Apart at Naked Swim Parties”

      “Banned For Life For Shoplifting From American Apparel”

      “Attention. Deficit. Rift. Disorder.”

      “All About Random Lulu Obsessions”

      • D.R. Haney says:

        I will take this opportunity, as I report laughter, to say that I, too, want a photo of Dick Cheney reading BFL — preferably in the ICU, where I would hope that BFL has placed him.

        Every one of those mashup titles is a gem.

        • Totally Killer II starring Dick Cheney.

          Scene and setting: Quail hunting on a South Texas ranch February 2006.

          Co-starring Harry Whittington.

          Tagline: Was it really an accident that he pulled the trigger?

          Enter music. Dhm dhm dhm.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          I have a terrific ending for that movie, but it might be best not to put it out there on the Internet, where it’s liable to be misconstrued by the FBI.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Cheney does appear in TK, of course. He was the Secretary of Defense in 1991.

          He’s such an easy target. Of satire, I mean. Of satire. G-men be gone.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Ha. I just found myself dancing very carefully on FB while leaving a note for AXS, not wanting to trip any security alarms.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Did you catch The Daily Show the day the hunting accident happened? Jon Stewart didn’t even make jokes. He just kept saying, over and over again, what had happened: “The vice president of the United States just shot another man in the face because he mistook him for a bird.” Man, it was funny.

          AXS is a government operative, but I’m pretty sure she works for the Left.

      • Classic. Greg, I may have to take a bunch of TNB books and redecorate the spines after this . . .

  6. Oh, this showed up way lower than I tried to put it. Meaning The Summer We Fell Apart at Naked Swim Parties, et. al.

    • Greg Olear says:

      I knew what you meant…and thanks. I can’t tell you how much fun I’m having with the title of your book, Gina. (I’m pretending that said title is not realized in such a sad way). Your book makes an appearance in the TNB teaser video, so make sure and check it out.

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