VOLCANO DAYS By Brian Johnson (Somerville, 166 pages, $19.95)
It sounds like an exercise machine, and the bildungsroman has proven to be a sturdy device indeed. Meaning “novel of formative education,” the genre is adaptable to a variety of acute, life-defining experiences—the kind that compel first novelists, from J. D.
Salinger to Douglas Coupland, to take on the arduous, usually unprofitable, task of writing fiction. Originating in German folk tales (Village Idiot Seeks Adventure and Finds Wisdom the Hard Way), the form appears in various guises as, among others, the war story (Boy Goes to War and Returns Changed), the adventure story (Person Discovers True Self in Exotic Land) and, of course, the romance (Boy Becomes Man After Sex with Mature Woman). Brian D. Johnson’s elegant first novel, Volcano Days, lends the genre a Canuck flavor and an Aquarian spin, as in: Anal-Retentive Canadian Finds Self After Freaking Out and Nearly Committing Suicide.
Written with the economy of a reporter, the eye of a travel writer and the voice of a poet (Johnson, now a Maclean’s senior writer and movie reviewer, has toiled in all three genres), Volcano Days will resonate poignantly among baby boomers— especially those weaned on the heady cocktail of sex, separatism and psychedelia that began to inflame Montreal around 1969. The story concerns the inner and outer travels of an unnamed journalist on the lam from southern Ontario. Caught between a precarious commitment to Marxist politics and the
lubricious embrace of his gamine lover, Cléo, he leaps into the cauldron of Quebec cultural politics in a futile attempt to lose his parched Anglo skin, to mutate into something he is not.
Soon, events—both real and imagined— blow his mind in Grand Guignol 1960s style. He suffers paranoid hallucinations, terrifying yet liberating, the kind of Bad Trip that leads people to think they can fly off the balcony. Our man does not jump from the balcony, but he loses his job, embarrasses friends and colleagues and writes long, obsessive prosepoetry devoid of predicates and punctuation.
Paradoxically, the narrator’s sardonic, precise recollections of his most troubled, chaotic moments yield the funniest bits in the book. He quotes from his diary: “On the corner seat sits a Motorola radio like the kind cops use. It is someone’s property, so it is probably very sensitive. I feel the cold creeping up my throat. I have to move. The nattering is full strength on the Motorola. When I move, it starts; when I stop, it stops. The radio is insane.”
But all is not lost. On the contrary, he discovers in his madness a peculiar integrity and an existential mission. In other words, he
A young man tunes in, turns on and freaks out
becomes a French Symbolist. With Cléo as his muse, he embarks on a pilgrimage informed by sex, drugs and tourism, inhabiting a series of Mediterranean islands containing live volcanoes, the geological counterpart of his inner state—not a foreign sojourn but a weird homecoming, where he and Cléo quite literally dance on the edge of the abyss. The sexual nihilism of Last Tango in Paris, meanwhile, hangs over the novel like a cloud of warm ash.
Inescapably, the lovers must return to Canada, where insanity recedes and passion chills. And how telling that, in Ontario, a brief recurrence of madness turns out to be oncoming flu symptoms. Eventually, Cléo leaves him for a “gentle narcissist” who reminds her of herself, and our hero turns from schizophrenia to clinical depression. After a brief waltz with suicide, he finds a forlorn niche playing drums with a band fronted by the aforementioned narcissist and backed by two of Cléo’s ex-lovers.
Eventually, he is prowling volcanic Caribbean islands, attempting a return to the edge. But things are different: he is alone, the craters have cooled, sex is an antidote for loneliness, drugs an idle pastime, madness a vague paranoia. Death appears, not as a molten cauldron but an empty hole, a kind of slapstick accident.
Welcome to real life. In growing-up stories, age is the ultimate editor: in retrospect, the worst of times—a War, a Depression, a Bad Trip—become the best of times, a good yam, a bildungsroman for a generation, to be polished and retold with nostalgic relish, for life will never again be so intense. “You can’t go nowhere, mon,” a Jamaican drummer tells the hero. “You go one way or you go de other. But a man can’t go nowhere. Iniquity is a dread place. Are you a fallen angel?” The narrator recalls that he “would have loved to shout out, ‘Yes, fallen and still falling, dizzy, delirious, lying with the devil, flowering with evil and burning sulphur.’ ” His response, however, is
that of a baby boomer, not an angel. “My reply, which I don’t remember, was noncommittal. Something about taking a stroll.”
The first-person voice, combined with the past tense, give Volcano Days its bitter aftertaste, an undertone of generational selfmockery. Fellow baby boomers may have fallen by the wayside, lost to madness, suicide and extended prison terms. But for those who survived to middle age, it all becomes a temporary madness, a nostalgic journey, a growing-up experience—a stroll.
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