Searching For Petronius Totem
Freehand Books, 2017
Softcover, 247 pages
Let me get straight to the point. This is a brilliant book: a savagely satirical romp, a slaughterhouse for sacred cows (tender sensibilities beware) an eulogy for the Romantic hero, a fever dream of early 21st century anxiety, a midlife identity crisis, and a voyage of self-discovery. Simultaneously poignant and absurd, it is also, somewhat counter-intuitively, an assertion of the primacy of love and family, all rolled into an hilarious, madcap, fantastical, infinitely quotable, Canadian road trip saga, with, I suspect, the spirit of Bertolt Brecht presiding. Rather astoundingly, never once does Unwin lose control of the proceedings.
As I have noted, the framing structure of the story is quite standard — a road trip of self-discovery. Unwin’s treatment of it is anything but. Jack Vesoovian (the various connotative associations of whose name will reward a ponder) is a Canadian poet and author of a certain vintage and type, immediately familiar to those of us who came of age in Canada in the seventies when the country was in its cultural adolescence, that supremely beautiful, supremely awkward stage of unfiltered idealism when the question of our artistic/cultural development assumed a glow of unassailable profundity. Unassailable profundity, by definition, mutes one’s critical faculties, and is, of course, fertile ground for all manner of self-delusion. For those susceptible to the siren call of the arts, (perhaps, in particular, idealistic, young males in thrall to the cult of the Romantic hero, and its echo, the Beat aesthetic) sorting out just where one falls out along the brilliant/delusional continuum can be the major psychic work of middle age. Having retired, de tout hauteur, to a poetic aerie/squalid rooming house (depending on one’s perspective) clutching his treasured collection of Grove Press first editions, and his righteous idealism, and reeling from a domestic dispute of relationship-ending proportions, Jack, it seems, has arrived at this painful juncture.
When an attempt to construct a self-sustaining artistic brotherhood amongst the rooming house patrons fails for want of a common purpose, Jack defaults to another literary trope — a mythic Canadian road trip, in search of his old friend/ alter ego, and quintessential Canadian Romantic literary hero, Peter Tidecaster, aka, Petronius Totem, who, he has intuited, may be in peril.
As Jack rumbles along the trans Canada north of Superior in his (possibly ex-) wife Elaine’s “rotting Ford Sable,” and plunges into the static-and-star-filled night beyond the reach of modern telecommunications, there is time to reminisce about his long relationship with Peter/Petronius, and come face-to-face with his own middle-aged self. The reader is regaled with tales of Petro’s prototypical sex and booze-soaked adventures in the green pastures of a nascent Canadian art scene — the Kamp Can Lit Debacle, in which an uncharacteristically blameless and chaste (or nearly blameless and chaste) Petro unwittingly finds himself the catalyst for a night of Dionysian revel and awakening amongst the participants in an arts camp for teenage girls, and the hilarious Road Book/Book Road cross-country extravaganza, “the greatest, most ambitious, and surely the most poorly organized multimedia event in the history of art.” A tinge of pathos creeps into the story as, having earlier informed the reader of Pete’s ascent to the realms of glory, (the publication and aggressive marketing of his celebrity, myth-affirming memoir, TEN THOUSAND BUSTED CHUNKS. The Life of Petronius Totem*) Jack recounts his ignominious fall — revelations that the contents of said memoir were mostly fictitious.
Jack’s own reminisces of the young Pete Tidecaster’s home life, in all its squalid and desperate suburban insanity (laid bare in a brilliant series of observational sketches each of which deserves an appreciative paragraph of its own) unveils something unexpectedly remarkable and admirable at the core of Petronius and makes it clear that, in Peter Tidecaster’s case, invention WAS necessity. By the time Petronius launches his last great stunt — the first attempted solo circumnavigation of the mighty Lake Superior in an inner-tube, sustained by fish caught by hook and line, an ample supply of Canadian rye, and the twenty-six novels of Georges Simenon — one has developed an awkward admiration for this aging figurehead of a dying aesthetic, and derives little glee from the utter inanity of his exit from the public stage — last seen drifting helplessly beyond Slate Islands, he is eventually recovered, after a cataclysmic storm, snagged in a tree, up-side-down and unconscious, a scant six hundred yards from his launch point.
We learn, further, that this is not the first time Jack has dropped everything to find his old friend. Four years earlier, Pete had disappeared suddenly from Hamilton (where the two had grown up together) necessitating a cross-country pilgrimage on Jack’s part to rescue him from a sketchy hotel in Vancouver in which he had holed up, apparently to drink himself silly and, hopefully, elude an impressive number of creditors. Perhaps unduly influenced by Elaine’s ringing anti-endorsement — “Pete Tidecaster is a stinking drunk, and the world will be better off when his liver gives out,”– it is only too easy to believe Pete when he confides boozily to Jack that he thinks he “might be in some serious shit,” and pleads for his help.
This particular reminiscence allows Unwin to lay the groundwork for another major narrative thread — a dark conspiracy involving Leggit International Fibre Optic and Fast Food Incorporated, a shadowy multinational with fingers in the prison system, apparently bent on monopolizing a new technology: take-out cyber chicken, home delivered in the form of edible drones, “fibre optic fried chicken that [flies] straight through your window and [lands] on the kitchen table.” Before one writes this off as hilariously hyperbolic techno-anxiety masquerading as a plot device, one would be well advised to peruse the following article from the CBC radio program Spark, entitled “This Week In Edible Robots,” which posits that “we may experience in the near future, robotic pizzas that just hop onto your table, ready to slice.” It is hard to judge whether Unwin was being uncannily prescient, or whether, in this age of constantly accelerating change, where, every day it seems, the laughably impossible becomes possible, it’s just very difficult to hyperbolize. In any case, rumours are circulating that Leggit Chicken has ambitions that go far beyond the fast food market, that they are, in fact, taking a proprietary interest in reality itself, and to that end, have been buying up patents on human DNA, and hiding edible microchips in their order-in. If there is any doubt left as to their general dastardliness and the threat they pose to the Canadian way of life, consider this: they are believed to have been planting digestible digital sensors in Timbits.
As Petronius warns Jack, just before his final disappearance,
We’ve been mediated, commodified, signified, digitized, deconstructed, neo-liberalized, and now we’re getting chickenized.
As it turns out, Petronius should know, as he has, apparently, stolen the latest version of Leggit’s software (version 5.1) He is, thus, a person of particular interest to a multinational conglomerate with an eye on world domination — one whose operating budget far exceeds the point at which concepts of justice, crime or punishment cease to have any relevance. This is, as one might intuit, an extremely tenuous situation in which to find oneself, and one which Jack inadvertently inherits when he agrees to fill in for Pete at his hotel desk clerk job while Pete uses Jack’s plane ticket to make a hasty getaway. Leggit’s muscle soon arrives, looking for Peter and mistakes regarding identity ensue, a crucial confusion which will complicate Jack’s life for some time to come.
Returning to the present, somewhere on the Trans-Canada, north of Superior, between Dead Horse Creek and Pukaskwa River, and shortly after Jack has discovered the first real evidence that he is on right track in his search for his friend (a bit of phallic hieroglyphic graffiti on a washroom wall) narrative threads intersect and things come to a car-crash of a climax. In an allegorical tangle of Gordian proportions, Jack experiences a figurative head-on collision with a projection of his male delusions manifesting as the mirage-like “beauty of the north shore,” a “ghost-walking stunner who trod the Trans-Canada in a size twelve Aguaclara two-piece and swung her hips like a pony.” This psychic diversion precipitates a much more literal collision with “one of those family vehicles that resemble armoured personnel carriers with the roof stacked high with camping gear,” complete with a squabbling couple with nondescript careers, children, dog, and inflatable water toys. In other words, the end to any Romantic hero-worshipping, idealistic male artiste’s dreams of greatness. To add to Jack’s troubles, just prior to his accident, a close brush with a Leggit transport truck resulted in their surveillance re-establishing his whereabouts. This, of course, allows loose ends to be gathered although at a very inopportune time for Jack. The resulting run-in with a Leggitt assassin, and a near final moment of clarity, brings Jack to the epiphanic understanding that life, pared down to its essentials, contains only Elaine and his family.
Energized by his new-found certainty, he launches an heroic quest to regain his hearth and home. Dazed from the accident, various bits of the car impaled in his person, and woozy from loss of blood, he limps to the nearest vestige of civilization, the “Bite Me Bait Shop Emporium: a combination gas station, grocery store, bait shop, restaurant, dance hall, video store, motel, and dew worm outlet, all of which were long bankrupt and now in shambles,” and, significantly, the home of the Petronius graffiti, and a pay phone — a critical link to Elaine. Rather incongruously, he also discovers Petronius, the target of his original quest, chopping wood at the back of the establishment, looking very ordinary, and Pete-like. Ushering Jack into his mouldy motel room, noting, in the falling light, that they “don’t have much time,” Pete guides him through a nightmarish vision of the near future, the almost-now, a world stripped of all meaning by infinite choice, complete with digitized DNA, and extreme specialization allowing for, amongst other things, personalized, virtual pornography, — the infamous stolen Leggitt 5.1 software. “Reality,” Pete notes, “[is] proprietary now.” However, when Pete waxes grandiloquently nostalgic about the two friends’ role in the defense of the ideals of art, “the revolution that we forged with our own unstoppable artistic and sexual appetites,” insisting that (he, Jack, and other like-minds) “waved the raised middle finger of our mighty members into the face of the world,” Jack doesn’t remember it quite the same way. As he describes, “I stared at him. I remember being drunk and doing several things I wish I hadn’t, but nothing like that.” Clearly, the power of the Petronius myth is fading. A psychic battle of sorts ensues, as the middle-aged poet comes to terms with his reality and his delusions, a moment that coincides with the physical demise of Petronius Totem — who leaves this earthy coil as only he could — in the midst of an incoming cyber-chicken attack, in a glorious send-up of the singularity, complete with an aluminum pie-plate helmet.
In the case of Searching For Petronius Totem, attempts to make the always excruciating decisions about what to include in the discussion, and what must, in the interests of concision, be abandoned, are confounded by an embarrassment of riches. Above all else, though, appreciative mention must be made of the writing itself. From his opening gambit, Unwin ascends to a very high wire of whip smart, absurdist satire, and never descends — an admirable enough feat, further amplified by his meticulous sentence craft, and unfailing sense of rhythm. I have always admired Unwin’s mastery of language, but feel it has reached some sort of apogee in this novel. A compendium of eminently quotable quotes, this writing is catnip for reviewers like myself who admire a phrase with sparkle. Consider this apt depiction of the interpersonal atmosphere immediately after Jack drops a large conversational bomb: “The room blistered with silence.” Brilliant in its exact simplicity. This artistry serves Unwin particularly well in his acerbically telling character observations. Take, for example, a quick assessment of one denizen of a seedy Toronto bar as “a female alcoholic of limp grandeur,” or his rendition of an improbable, would-be Leggitt assassin as “a ball-busting, bingo-playing, [knitting] needle-packing, overweight prairie girl with an unfinished doctoral thesis in French critical theory … with her heavy, informal breasts, [and] the hair that appeared to be in curlers even when it wasn’t.” As mentioned earlier, his rapid-fire assessments of Pete’s childhood home life are particularly to be admired — scorchingly succinct observation under the cover of satire, simultaneously revealing, heartbreaking, hilarious and cathartic. As evidence, I offer this tidbit regarding Pete’s mother:
At that point Peter’s mother drifted into the kitchen dressed in a terrifying blue negligee that seemed to be made up of a million butterfly wings all sewn together and all of them swishing when she moved. She did not so much walk into the kitchen as float into it, skimming over her husband [asleep on the floor] without looking down and moving instinctively to the refrigerator, on top of which stood a clear glass cookie jar packed with pills.
She swept down the jar, cradled it on her hip like a bongo, unscrewed the top, and dug out a handful of blue, red, and green pills that she hurled into her mouth and washed down with a gulp of milk from a quart container. Wiping the froth from her lips she held me with an intense glare. Her eyes sizzled in the way of women who are cross-addicted and have given up their dance careers to live at home with disagreeable alcoholic husbands.
The savage style is, importantly, buttressed by substance (significant love of literature, endless wordplay, and allusory wit, ) and serves as a vehicle for what is, at its core, a serious, anguished examination of an artist’s eternal conundrum, and the terrors of our modern, rapid-change, increasingly digitized, and commodified existence.
While commenting on the doings of man, Unwin is implacable and scathing. His style softens, however, whenever his attention turns to the natural world — in particular when describing the iconic and inscrutable beauty of the north shore of Lake Superior. He returns to familiar symbolic ground here, with a few sly references to earlier works (whistling, northern lights, and the beauty of trout streams, for example). To travel north, to Superior, in Unwin’s work, is to experience a mystical transition from the quotidien, banal, and human, to the natural, elemental, mythic and eternal. The point in the trip at which radio signals are lost and replaced with static delineates a portal of sorts. As Jack expresses it, he “drove grimly through the white hiss into the glory and the misery of being alive, or at least not dead.” The northern lights seem to function as harbingers or indicators of a life force, an energy (similar, perhaps to that considered in Don MacKay’s wonderful The Shell of the Tortoise) which I will dub “the natural divine,” and which is, perhaps, best accessed through the imagination, the subconscious, or, in Jack’s case, the semi-hypnotic state induced by solitary, late-night driving. In one such case, Jack reminisces about a variety of artists of the literary persuasion gathered at the end of a week of mentoring youth in an arts camp, to drink and debrief. As Jack describes it,
Our work was done. We had done what artists do. We had thrown gasoline on the fire of young kids. We made clever statements about the meaning of life and art etc. We dismissed semiotics and went into the mountains and acted foolishly. Now we sat on the deck beneath a serious display of northern lights drinking beer, all of us except for Roddy Trumbaugh who had sworn off drinking beer altogether after breaking two teeth and losing part of his right ear in an incident he couldn’t remember.
Such is the world of man. The northern lights, however, alert us to the immanence of the sacred, and almost immediately,
the buck appeared and stood stone-still in the field. A towering fourteen-point rack sprouted from its head and a white tuft curled from its neck, giving the beast the look of a powerful mandarin. Clearly it had no interest in writers, artists, columnists, educators, and wind-bags of all stripes. Just standing there it surpassed anything we had ever done. All our “edgy accounts of life in the fast lane” could not compare with what was out there in that field in the unfathomable soul of that animal.
It stood motionless as the red strands of the northern lights swished across the universe, brushing its back with ionic tentacles and shooting up again. Someone whistled. The buck cocked an ear, not in our direction, but toward the trees. A white shiver of light shot straight down to the earth and illuminated the animal as it went from us without concern. It was gone; it had entered another dimension where we could not follow.
Semiotics, it seems, was not the only thing dismissed.
At its heart, this tale is a reckoning — the story of the idealist’s struggle to come to terms with the disparity between one’s life goals and one’s actual accomplishments, one’s dreams and one’s reality — in short, a mid-life crisis — Jack’s long search for, re-examination of, and final poignant farewell to Petronius, its signposts. Although Petronius Totem/Pete Tidecaster is believable as a character in and of himself, presented, of course, through a lens of satiric hyperbole, an argument can be made that he is also a fragment of Jack’s personality, his idealized, romanticized, self-image, the maintenance of which is growing increasingly untenable as he ages. Jack’s various portrayals of himself (although simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-mocking) leave little doubt that he identifies with the Romantic hero (a là Byron et al) and views domesticity as a primary threat to his freedom and potential as an artist. Life, in the form of Elaine, has presented Jack with an ultimatum — choose: your artistic idealism or your family. It is not insignificant, in an allegorical sort of way, that Elaine loathes Pete Tidecaster (who speaks naturally in iambic pentameter, and whose promotional picture is explicitly compared to Byron), and that it was a domestic crisis which resulted in Jack wandering, exhausted, through the foggy midnight streets of Hamilton, feeling the conflicting pulls of family and art. Having been rejected as inconsequential, even by the neighbourhood dogs, he has a quasi-mystical experience:
I moved on beneath a soft rain of ash, stopping only to sneeze. When the sneeze was over, I saw it.
The sign bearing the face of Petronius Totem. My old friend was on a sign. More than a sign, he was on a honking big billboard. There was that blatantly photogenic, plangent, clear-eyed face in a familiar pose. The pose was Thomas Phillips’ portrait of Lord Byron all over again, the one with the big eyes and the fat lips.
. . .
Not Pete Tidecaster, but the new faux classical celebrity golden-boy author’s nom de plume in lights and forty-foot letters. Petronius Totem™ had been born.
Not long after, Jack sets out in search of his old friend — now a “totem” — a revered symbol (as the billboard made clear) of the quintessential Romantic hero, and, there’s little doubt, Jack’s alter ego — pushed to the sidelines and threatened by the demands of middle age. On his long drive through the wilds of Superior, Jack comes to terms with his friend’s legacy, and, in fact, with himself — his youthful identity as a Romantic hero, and the true measure of his talent. It is Petronius’s gentle observation, “You’re a good man, Jack. You’re not a great man. But you’re a good man.” that releases Jack from his idealism, allows him to honour it (“At least we tried.”) and then to refocus his energies on his family, knowing that he has not betrayed an ideal, but acknowledged a truth.
If Searching For Petronius Totem was nothing more than a sustained, virtuosic scream at the world, it would still, in its own right, stand as a significant, and significantly entertaining, accomplishment. But, of course, it is much more. If one is too blinded by the flash, dazzle, and sheer audacity of the satire, and the wicked humour, it can take some time to register the searching sadness that underpins the writing, but the lament for lost things (youth, dreams, idealism, connections to nature, the Romantic ideal, the possibility of heroism, respect for the value of art) is keen and deep. This dual quality of the writing, at once reverent and disdainful, provides insight into the core of Unwin’s concerns. It is a topic which, in certain respects, has occupied others, including Sheila Heti , and, Jonathan Franzen who, in a recent absorbing piece by Taffy Brodesser-Akner in the New York Times, discusses, amongst many other things, the intricate balance an artist must try to maintain between self-doubt and self-confidence. The thin line, indeed the pivot point, upon which this balance is maintained (or not) is the psychic space of Unwin’s story. It is, at one level, the story of an artist’s confrontation with his alter-ego, a struggle to come to terms with his talent and its limitations, to confront the heroes/demons/pretensions populating his youthful idealism, and to find the most meaningful focus for the time and energy remaining to him. This age-old artistic conundrum, however, gains significance when it merges with the more timely struggle of how to know what is true in general — a task growing rapidly more pertinent and difficult in the maelstrom of exponential technological change in which we find ourselves (remember the robo-pizza!). Consider this take-down of modern material coolness, levelled by the sharp-tongued Petronius, as he attempts to bolster Jack’s flagging faith in himself:
All they [non-artist males] do is walk around in suits, talk on cell-phones, order sushi, flip real-estate, and update their Facebook pages. That’s it, Jack. You’re not like that. You’re down-to-earth, man. Earthy. Are you kidding? Women are crazy about that. They kill for earthy. Just wait till they find out you wrote The Fly That Would Not Die For Love But Did Anyway.
What, exactly, is being mocked here? What begins as a take-down of shallow materialism in favour of an artistic ideal, is immediately devalued by the suggested motivation for the idealism. This is a small example of Unwin playing both sides of the knife-edge — a repeating pattern throughout the story, involving ideas large and small.
In what or whom should one believe? — Jack Vesoovian, latent literary genius or “pathetic skirt-chasing middle-aged white male with a drinking/drug problem who couldn’t see past his masculine privilege”? Pete Tidecaster, vapid poseur, glibly manipulating a fledgling Canadian culture’s susceptibility to pretension, or, Petronius Totem, a brave and admirable survivor and defender of art for art’s sake, a technological mastermind who engineers his own brilliant escape into cyberspace, or a pathetic drunk, gone to ground in a mouldy motel room, a tinfoil pie plate strapped to his head; a devious plot to commodify and monetize existence, or a brave new technological utopia; bloodless technocrats who insist that all value can be commodified or creative zealots, scornful of any practicality? At what point does the ideal become ridiculous, techno-anxiety become paranoia, belief in oneself become a delusion? On a different level, therefore, the story is a dialectic between cherished ideals and reality, between confident identity and self-delusion, between, ultimately, the sacred (that which is worthy of dedication and sacrifice) and the profane (that which is not) and, in this rollicking absurdist satire, Unwin has found the perfect vehicle with which to present it.
Unwin’s writing has been preoccupied for some time with the tension between one’s aspirations and one’s abilities, one’s ideals and one’s limitations, potential, performance, regrets and reward — a recurrent theme in Life Without Death. In this latest effort, the conversation reaches a crescendo — at once furious, outrageous, incisive, and rib-crackingly funny, and existing, brilliantly, at the intersection of very current cultural and personal issues. One has concerns, of course, for the fate of this work in the current climate of fragile sensibilities and the tyranny of taking offense, but regardless of its reception, it stands as a significant piece of writing. Although Petronius’s amicable integration into Jack’s mature self seems to signal a resolution of sorts, one can’t help but hope, for purely selfish reasons, that Unwin’s own artistic endeavours continue full force.
*likely an allusion to the James Frey A Million Little Pieces controversy