Sunday, December 16, 2007

As Good As Dead

As Good As Dead: a cautionary tale by Stan Rogal (Pedlar Press 2007)

Stan Rogal’s As Good As Dead is nothing if not entertaining. It is an absurdist romp through the world of publishing and entertainment. In the late 1990s, I had the chance to read and review two of Rogal’s earlier works of fiction, and like them, As Good As Dead has the same voyeuristic quality. That is to say that reading this novel is like passing an accident on the 401; although startling and twisted – and maybe even a bit horrific at turns – you cannot help but slow down and take a look.

Victor (Vic) Stone is a forty-five-year-old writer, of poetry mostly, who has settled into a grove that suits him. He is not wildly happy, but neither is he particularly dejected with his lot. He has a small press publisher, Vigilante Editions, that is more than willing to turn out a slim volume of poetry for him every few years, a New Age ex-wife who continues to care for him long after their split, and a bit on the side with a married mother of two. Add the occasional bottle of Jack, and things are good.

It isn’t until a Hollywood schlock-meister offers him a million dollars for the movie rights to his first, and only, novel that life gets complicated.

Vic opens his stream-of-consciousness tale with a question: how did Jack Kerouac feel the morning he woke up famous? And while we suspect Vic’s story to elucidate this point, the waters get a little muddied along the way. We do learn that people treat him differently once Hollywood comes knocking: "...I’ve made it, I’m getting out, I’ve achieved what others can only dream of, and no matter that we’re buddies and they want to be happy for me, there’s no shaking the fact that they’re stuck." Old friends turn him down for drinks.

But what he also discovers while guesting on an episode of Oprah is that "people are listening to me, actually hanging on my every word. Moreover, they are affected by the things I say." And this blind adherence to the cult of personality is what irks him most.

For Vic is a cynic (who oddly is also a "firm believer in love at first sight"), and deep down, he cannot reconcile his commercial success with his artistic integrity. People who have never read his work, and probably wouldn’t like it if they did, are now courting him for his opinions.

It is the age-old dilemma of the "indie" artist. He longs for success and approbation, but openly believes that the unwashed masses cannot possibly appreciate the intelligence of his work. So if he is suddenly embraced by the mainstream, he must have sold out and written something "unadventurous...stamped indelibly with either a Hallmark card happy face or a drippy-dippy glycerine tear, totally accessible, easily consumed and digestible, utterly forgettable and nothing to stick to the ribs or agitate the brain."

However, this is not the only rant up Vic’s sleeve. As Good As Dead is a slim, satirical narrative punctuated by "Howls" – of the Ginsbergian persuasion. Vic sounds off on cell phones, telemarketing, the media, New Age religions, and even the word "actually." These come hot and heavy, especially in the first third of the book, and although they are humourous, their frequency can be distracting at times.

There is also the matter of the novel’s turn toward the surreal in the latter stages. Without giving away too much, following Vic’s screamingly uncomfortable appearance on Oprah, the plot moves beyond a satirical tongue-in-cheek look publishing success and becomes a rather surprising story of cat-and-mouse chases and conspiracy theories.

The final chapter does much to save the novel from this radical departure by employing a kitschy deus ex machina that works well with something the protagonist ruminated over earlier; however, you have to stay with it in order to find out where the author is going.

In the end, it’s the character of Vic that carries the day here. He’s the sort of crazy drunk you want to meet in the early stages of a party when he’s still sober enough to be witty and drunk enough to say what he shouldn’t be saying.


John Mutford said...

Sounds like there are a lot of themes to mull over in this one. You say the rants were a bit distracting at first, did you feel this was the voice of the author sneaking through, and if so, did it feel preachy?

Leo Brent Robillard said...

Although I do not live in Toronto, I have been to BookExpo as an author a couple of times, and I have been writing and reviewing in the Canadian small press for fifteen years. As a result, I'm sure I recognize a few of the characters in here; so this is really a roman a clef. Is the author sneaking through? Sure he is. But I don't think he's trying to hide that fact. Preachy? Maybe. But ultimatley very funny, as well.