Now or Never Publishing
The romance of the road has long entranced the more rebellious side of the North American literati, though the ditch on the side of the post-Beat literary highway is crowded with Jack Kerouac’s poet-hobo descendants, stranded on their own would-be quixotic destinies. So, literally, is Xavier Bernard, the burnt-out-before-his-time narrator of Mitchell Gauvin’s Vandal Confession.
The On the Road echo may be a faint one here, but it is an apt shotgun partner for the reader who meets Xavier in transit with his friend Felix in Felix’s beat-up Jaguar. The pair stalls on a nondescript rural route in a nondescript part of Central Ontario and, to kill time while waiting for a tow, Xavier hands Felix a copy of the autobiographical novel he has been working on, based on his own nondescript life cruising the boundaries of the Greater Toronto Area.
Vandal Confession, though, is actually an anti-road novel. As the post-Gen Xer/pre-Millenial unheroes wait for assistance on the side of the highway, Xavier’s meandering recount of a standard suburban life takes over. In typical Late-Slacker fashion, he is all snark, nicknaming his nondescript residences (his boyhood home, “Slanty McGee”; his later bachelor pad, “Whitey McConcrete”) and casually tossing off interactions with a set of interchangeable directionless friends and hapless authority figures.
Subtle angst riffs with his constant cultural observations. He notes that “[w]hen built, Whitey McConcrete proposed that living further from the ground translated somehow into being worthy and unique. No one foresaw plumbing problems, flooding fountains, elevator malfunctions – the hamsters in their little wheels would go hungry.” He describes his father as “full of movie quotes and recanted scenes, mementos to simplified truths and rewritten familiar stories that were increasingly irrelevant. He thought he was speaking sincerely of sacred teachings and essential social lessons, but watching Rambo never taught anyone life lessons; watching Wall Street never taught anyone how to do business; although watching Crocodile Dundee will teach you why no one likes the 1980s.”
These observations may not be the stuff of philosophy but serve double-duty: showcasing Xavier’s sitcom-sidebar wit while also turning out the lining of a consciousness nurtured by Friends rather than the literary Canon.
At the lightly-balanced centre of this short book is a tension between creative and destructive impulses. Xavier’s desire to build meaning into his life and give it some sort of direction is evident from the names he’s tagged his homes with, to the fictional liberties that, as Felix points out, glare vividly from various sections of the manuscript. But Xavier can’t quite hide (or doesn’t quite want to hide) a latent impulse to violence that fractures his milquetoast image. Bold acts of arson (the literal vandalism in the book), threats to old acquaintances with firearms, and spray-painting over the truth (the figurative vandalism) are at odds with his placid self-portrait, and start to twist the reader’s perception with what has gone on before.
As a confession, this vandal’s is couched in a compact hymn to early 21st century existential angst rooted in the detritus of pop culture. But this isn’t about the artistic impulse so much as what can coil behind it. Reconciliation comes with a sinister change of tone when Xavier doesn’t smash the mirror but, rather, welcomes another image of himself into his own confession in what seems an ominous acceptance of his darker side.
Which enforces the notion that you should always be wary of who you pick up at the side of the road…
Pull up here.