Once again I was about to die. Like every other literary artist before me I was about to die forgotten in a ditch at the side of the Trans-Canada Highway, beneath a blackened train trestle and a faded “dew worms for sale” sign, with a bullet in my brain. At least I didn’t have to dig my own grave like Lorca, or Babel. It was thin consolation, but it was something.
–an excerpt from Searching for Petronius Totem by Peter Unwin
In the aftermath of getting kicked out by his wife, Jack Vesoovian begins a cross-country search for his missing friend, Petronius Totem. But there’s nothing straightforward about finding anyone in a world where a multi-national fibre optic catering company has an omnipresent wiretap on the entire population, is launching fibre optic chickens into airspace (yes, fake flying chickens) and sending out hitmen to kill you.
In fact, most things in Canadian author Peter Unwin’s book, Searching for Petronius Totem, is a little eccentric. For those who love to untangle social commentary from layers of bizarre plot twists and metaphors: here’s a novel of knots for you!
Jack and his wife, Elaine, have had their ups and downs. But their last exchange – ending in a few new bullet wounds in Jack’s leg and right ear lobe – feels like an end. So when his interim living situation goes bust, Jack escapes town and any final responsibility to his failed relationship. He goes looking for the renowned artist Petronius Totem (Petro).
Now living in unrepenting public shame, Petro has garnered a haggard reputation in recent years and, as Jack narrows in on his whereabouts, he finds himself trapped by the artist’s notoriously undesirable coattails. Suddenly he’s not only searching for his friend, but racing from attempts on his life by the ominous Leggit corporation, a technological entity with far-reaching power and influence. Along the way he unexpectedly discovers what he wants most: Elaine.
Now, how to make it home and win her back?
Fast-paced and sexually-charged, the voice and characters of Unwin’s book are reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The irregular, first-person narrative style comes from Jack, who is casually explicit and unflappable, and still manages to self-sabotage nearly every situation he puts himself in.
With offbeat bantering dialogue and suggestive innuendos, Searching for Petronius Totem is thick with sharp satire and cynical societal commentary (e.g. on the pervasive surveillance of corporate giants).
If being politically correct is a sleeping bear, Unwin is having a party during hibernation. However, while amusing, the observations aren’t always successful. At times it made me question: was I in on the critique, or the subject of?
But this book is unabashedly itself, and Searching for Petronius Totem has a kind of brazen magnetism. Even though I may have felt out of the loop occasionally, Unwin’s wit is unmistakeable. And his descriptive passages transform fiction into intoxicating scenes that draw you into Jack’s erratic reality. Those who relish a wild ride will find a complete escape in its pages.