Peter Unwin’s new novel, Searching for Petronius Totem, is a grand and bewildering off-road trip into Canadian weirdness. A dystopian kitchen sink domestic drama by way of private-eye-era noir, the book introduces hero and author Jack Vesoovian holding court in a ratty motel with a portly prostitute and Ayn Rand-loving former hockey player. Twisty digressions on literary theory ensue. There are many of them in the novel, and while you don’t need to know who Guy Debord, Roland Barthes or bell hooks are, you’ll get a bigger kick out of Unwin’s pretension-skewering nuttiness if you do.
Jack returns home after being stabbed in the leg by the aforementioned prostitute, with a puffy maxi-pad held in place to staunch the wound. His exasperated wife Elaine, an artist herself, delivers a serious beating to Jack (among other talents she’s an ace at martial arts) and sends him packing. Bereft and looking for purpose, Jack sets out to find his friend, fellow writer and artistic jack-of-all-trades Petronius Totem, unheard of since his sleeper hit of bacchanalian delights, “Ten Thousand Busted Chunks,” made him a minor celebrity. As Jack tours his way across the country, we get past glimpses of Petronius’s outsized personality, the sort of keening, long-winded and literate spirit that seduces some and infuriates many.
Much like Unwin’s previous work (including poetry and non-fiction), Searching further refines the author’s fascination with wedding surreal, character-driven tales to evocative portraits of a vast and varied Canadian landscape. With Petronius, Unwin indulges in creating the sort of character that generously feeds the fears of those who believe an artist’s job is attending ego-stroking parties and making interminable and specious performance art and poetry (though he also argues for the funding of creative misfits as a form of cheap and humane charity).
Your enjoyment of the novel will rely on the degree to which you love this sort of postmodern weirdness, though to Unwin’s credit he keeps the book from spinning out into terminal whimsy. The book is a joy to read, with sentences cadenced and clipped, giving readers lots of eye-popping visuals, such as Jack’s vision of a woman with “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.”
The novel is also a loving ode to Canadiana. From Hamilton through the Canadian Rockies, the country is seen as majestic and loaded with kitsch, dotted with bars and lounges populated by tall-tale-telling strangers. Richly exhausting and loaded with linguistic trickery, Unwin’s latest is a love story for oddballs and an ode to the artistic spirit in all its exasperating beauty.
—Bryn Evans is a journalist and arts critic based in Calgary.