Grim, uncouth, and hilarious: these are the adjectives I’d use to describe Lying Bastard, the upcoming debut novel of prolific poet and polemicist Clint Margrave. The story follows the mindscape of suicidal adjunct English professor Berlin Saunders, lying on the floor playing dead during a school shooting as he traces his steps to the present. The prime suspect is a student with whom Saunders has developed a unique relationship and the juxtaposition between Saunders’ abject depravity and the student’s militant conspiracism acts as the relational and moral fulcrum of the story. In forty-three succinct chapters of clear and crisp prose, Margrave constructs a debased and absurdist universe all too like our own, while reflecting the contradictions of our time with discomfiting clarity.
The book incorporates many themes: modern masculinity, alienated youth, the chaos of America, the unfathomable and bottomless rage boiling beneath our polarized politics and the seeming inability of our institutions to address the challenges we face. But, above all, the book is about lying, our most readily accessible tool to close the gap between ourselves and others, and the accumulating existential strain of the lies we tell. The books asks: in what kind of world do lies become more palatable than truths and are we living in such a world?
And how were his students really any different from him? How were their little lies different from the daily little lies he told them? Really, the whole education system was just one large cesspool of liars: students lying to teachers, teachers lying to students, students lying to students, administrators lying to teachers, the government lying to administrators, the government lying to teachers, the government lying to students. What differentiated the act of plagiarism from any other of the countless lies being spun around the nation?
As he drags his way through the existentially barren wasteland of academia, Saunders’ deadpan inner narrative has the ring of Chuck Palaniuck’s Fight Club mixed with Albert Camus’ The Stranger with a dash of Bukowski thrown in. His perceptions are as astute as they are depressing—which is perhaps the point. But, interspersed beneath the awkward, the mundane and the passive aggressive are those fleeting moments of human intimacy that remind us of the Other beyond the Self. We crave such moments, but we are loath to admit as much, for that would involve grappling with the terrifying reality that we need each other—a fact rendered all the more glaring by the current pandemic. The only thing scarier than the idea of being cosmically alone is the unnerving fact that we are alone together. Margrave smuggles these subtle moments of mutual recognition into the story as if on an underground railroad: through smoke breaks, shared beers, evening walks and the like.
That some of the novel’s strands are reminiscent of Camus is no coincidence, as Margrave’s polemic excursions attest. Camus’ protagonist Meursault proclaims, while awaiting his death, “I opened myself up to the gentle indifference of the world.” One anticipates Saunders coming to a similar revelation, though perhaps not quite as gentle. In excavating his creation, Camus says, “Meursault is afflicted by what I call the madness of sincerity. The character is distinguished by his never wanting to say more than he feels. It is this tenacious refusal, this fascination with authenticity, of what one is and what one feels, that gives meaning to the entire novel.” Saunders has the precise opposite affliction.
To give you a taste of book’s humour and tone, here is the description of a student and faculty protest against allowing Hooters—a restaurant franchise which mingles scantily clad waitresses with overpriced hot wings—to sponsor the school’s sports team:
“WHAT DO WE WANT?” a voice repeated in the megaphone as the crowds came stampeding down the hall. “EQUALITY” the crowd of protesters yelled in response. He had nothing against Hooters, though he’d never been there. He did remember hearing they had good chicken wings. Those poor chickens. Nobody was marching for them. They also wanted equality. They just wanted to live. They had breasts too, but instead of objectifying them, we ate them. He imagined the faculty storming down the hallway as a bunch of chickens, protesting Hooters chicken wings. “WHAT DO WE WANT?” “TO LIVE!” “WHAT ARE WE GOING TO GET?” “DIPPED IN RANCH!”
One criticism that could levelled at the book is that its range of characters is too broad. There are too many of them and their names are too easily forgotten. But, even here, breadth doesn’t impede depth, and even those who are less central to the narrative are more than blank-faced non-player characters. They have dreams, flaws and desires. They just happen to be more significant as part of the protagonist’s inner cosmos than as individuals in their own right—which is often how life is. Ultimately, an awareness of the web of familiar faces, names and swirling psychological complexes that surround us is the closest many of us come to a sense of community.
When I asked him what motivated him to write the book, Margrave mentioned two things. The first was the rise of postmodern ideology and woke culture on campus, which, when he began writing, had yet to be clearly identified in the media. And the second was his experience teaching Iraq vets:
I often felt an affinity for my students, particularly some of these guys who had been through war while I was just hanging out at the university. To many on the left, they were stereotyped as the cliché redneck, militia, gun-toting types … the kind many would fear might shoot up a school and I never found them to meet that stereotype. (They were also slightly conspiratorial, but often well-read or at least engaged with the world). I wanted to turn that narrative upside down, and turn it back on the academics who were crazier in many ways.
Margrave’s strength is in uncovering the universal in the specific, without forgoing the intricate contours of the particular nor glibly settling for vagueness. What keeps the reader turning the pages is more than sharp prose and canny social commentary: it is an underlying gravitational pull toward revelation and cathartic release. And, in that regard, Margrave doesn’t disappoint.