At a club in Toronto a couple months back I had that rarest of experiences for a writer of literary fiction: someone who had bought my book recognized me and told me how much they enjoyed it. Well, maybe not so rare for some writers, but a pretty special moment for this one, anyway. But what stuck with me days after my head had shrunk back down enough to get through the front door at home was not so much the kind things the man had to say about my novel, but, instead, what he'd expressed about the majority of the more-than-a-few other Canadian novels he'd read over the last few years: most of them were so, well.boring. Not boring as in "nothing interesting happened in them" (filled as they were with the usual titillating novelistic fare: sexual depravity, drug experimentation, dysfunctional families, obsessive love affairs gone sour, etc.), but boring as in the way the author told them. It seemed to him as if most of these books could have been written by the same author, so lacking were they for a distinct voice or style.
For the most part, we as a literary nation are rigidly, even dogmatically, conservative. Ondaatje and a very few other notable exceptions aside, most publishers, book reviewers, awards councils, and grant-bestowers all basically agree on what an author needs to do to create a good story: keep it simple, keep it plain, and above all don't draw attention to yourself stylistically. Sure, style is necessary to a writer, just not too much; style, like recreational drugs and rich food, is a clear case of where a little is a good thing, a lot potentially disastrous.
The American poet Donald Hall's well-known lament about the increasing dull sameness of the McPoem or, for that matter, the McStory, is only a symptom of-and, in fact, is entirely dwarfed by-the increasingly fatiguing sameness of our streets, cities, country, world. McLuhan's global village has for decades now not been an intriguing idea to be debated at university colloquia, it is the very real disappointment of driving Highway 61, the entire distance from northern Ontario to Memphis, Tennessee, and never escaping the steady stare of the same billboards for Burger King and Coca Cola, rarely seeing a change in the architecture, or even the people for that matter. It is Baywatch being the number-one-rated television program in Germany, the birthplace of Goethe and Beethoven. It is the ubiquitous two-cars, two-TVs, and two-kids philosophy of what constitutes "the good life" that has claimed most of the world as its happy victim. It is the Super Bowl being broadcast to approximately 150 countries. It is Euro-Disney.
The fact that the Americans seem to have their green thumb (green as in cash, not petunias) all over this sad state of world affairs is not the real issue. If it wasn't Uncle Sam attempting to manifest himself all over the place it would surely be someone else's uncle. The real issue, as one enduring symbol of stylistic defiance against sameness, e.e. cummings, saw it, is: "To be nobody-but-yourself-in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else-means to fight the hardest battle any human being can fight; and never stop fighting." And for the writer, this battle is even more difficult, for she must "express nobody-but-yourself in words because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else."
In his novel Badass on a Softail, no-one could mistake the prose of T. F. Rigelhof for anyone else's. Rigelhof's sentences do all the things the literary taste-makers tell us time and time again "well-written" prose isn't supposed to do. Stuffed full of alliteration and internal rhyme, his wonderfully crafted sentences constantly test the bounds of "correct" grammatical structure, his prose, in the process, emerging ten times tastier than any served up by the McCanLit factory in years.
Savour the second paragraph of the novel, for example, a place where most of our "best and brightest" writers would still be idling in prose neutral, but where Rigelhof is not content to do anything but give it all the gas he's got:
"Doo wah diddy diddy, noontime sex on sheets as white as snow or dove feathers can knock a man out for a long count. And Hoffer hasn't had a good daytime good time in such a long time, a year and counting, that it drenched him in dreams when he shouldn't have been asleep this deep. And when sex knocks him out cold, it leaves me punch drunk too singing the oogum boogum song um um mow mow check out the poosah, check out the poosah um um um. This is a problem right now. A very immediate problem. Oogum boogum, we've got to get ready and steady and go. Godamn, we've got to get up and get it together with me back inside his head. Godamn, I'd like to kick him right where the monkey keeps his nuts but sweet baby sweetums, I've got no feet. Pedal power isn't all I need."
In an essay on Dante, T. S. Eliot said that "genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood." Which is really what Dick Clark meant for all those years on American Bandstand when he said that eight out of ten kids liked song number two because, whatever it was the singer was saying, you could really really dance to it. Before turning three pages of Rigelhof's novel, the reader knows it's going to be a loud and fast ride with, happily, plenty of unexpected twists and turns along the way.
Badass on a Softail tells the story of David Hoffer, former bass player and songwriter for a sixties rock and roll band called D.O.P.E., who today runs a successful video production company in Montreal specializing in musical videos for Canadian popular music acts, which Hoffer believes are all about the music and not T-shirt and lunch-box corporate tie-ins. But all is not middle-aged bliss for Hoffer, as evidenced by the novel opening up with him riding his Harley Davidson Heritage Softail to the funeral of his mentorial best-friend Woody, who has just succumbed to prostate cancer (with Hoffer worrying if the literal pain in his own motorcycling-butt is the beginning of the same). He has also mistakenly sold some of the adjoining land near his business to a religious cult called Children of the Sun to finance an equipment upgrade for his expanding business. And, although he's living with a brainy and sexy teenager named Roberta, he is still prone to publicly pine for his previous lover, Lou.
Rigelhof's impressive linguistic facility aside, Badass on a Softail runs on your basic How-did-I-get-here-after-all-these-years-and-all-those-drugs? and Who-the-hell-am-I-now? story-line. Hoffer's nemesis David Assmole (yes, Assmole) and Hoffer's aged lesbian mother (who wants to pack up her house in Fredericton and take her lover along with her to Australia to break the news to her pen-pal of decades, face-to-face, that's she's gay so the pen-pal won't feel bad about making advances toward her through the mail) head up a rich collection of inventive and convincing secondary characters.
Of course, because a language-driven author like Rigelhof usually allows sound to lead sense, there is the occasional snap, pop, and hiss in a novel that otherwise plays clear and strong, places where the good sense of lyrically restrained, hard-headed revision would have made for a stronger novel. I quit counting at fifty, for example, all the pop music song-lyrics and titles embedded in the narrative. Early on, the technique is both inventive and structurally appropriate, as there is nothing so important to Hoffer as music, so music should dominate the prose of his story. Pushed too far, though, an inventive technique becomes a repetitive, mannered gag, and when we start getting sentences like "Why yup, great balls of fire, this sure enough sounds like as good as a seven-day weekend" and "If your girl was such a sweet child of mine I'd be running scared of what might be happening to her anywhere Bolo was leader of the pack," the references begin to irritate rather deepen our understanding of Hoffer's character. And the decision to have Hoffer's ego serve as a distinct character to narrate the novel is an interesting strategy in theory, but here, at best, inconsequential because it isn't developed enough to really do much more than any third-person narrator would, and, at worst, simply wrong-headed, as any reader of the otherwise well-drawn (not to mention delightfully surprising) last chapter will testify. Let's hope Badass on a Softail gets all readers it deserves who will get there.
And fellow novelists, please, for the sake of this great country of ours: a little less about your two harrowing months in rehab or how your last girlfriend never really understood what a wild and crazy but charming rogue you really are, and a little more bad-ass in your sentences. Do it for the guy standing at the bar. The one who doesn't want to be bored.
Ray Robertson is the author of the novel Home Movies (Cormorant Books).