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Please

by Peter Darbyshire

Please, Peter Darbyshire’s debut novel, belongs to a genre of urban slacker/existentialist fiction recently popularized by Jesus’ Son, the critically acclaimed collection of linked stories by American Denis Johnson. The appeal of Johnson’s protagonist lay in his hapless (and often drug-induced) detachment in the face of the danger. Darbyshire’s narrator is similarly detached.

Casual, if not callous, when confronted with tragedy, with a shaky moral compass, he stumbles through his media-saturated surroundings in search of … well, maybe not in search of anything. The novel is not so much a character-driven quest as it is an accumulation of anecdotes and characters that include two-bit movie producers with big dreams, friendships that end in kidnapping and extortion, and rebels with petty causes.

The narrator is drawn to those who, like him, are struggling with a handicap of one kind or another. In one chapter he follows a blind man home and remembers an ex-girlfriend with a fake arm who left him for a man with a fake leg, and in another he recounts how he and his ex-wife met while playing victims in emergency simulations for doctors-in-training. Although the situations are rendered in well-wrought, deadpan prose, this pile-up of injuries and ironies becomes tiresome. A writer can only point to the world’s emptiness so many times before losing a reader’s sympathies.

That said, there is some sharp, dark humour here, and Darbyshire is adept at milking the absurdity of small talk amongst strangers in ridiculous circumstances. In a chapter titled “He’ll Live Forever,” the narrator, an injured actor, and a desperate filmmaker end up in a fatal car crash when they spot a man they believe to be John Cusack and chase him recklessly through city streets. This story succeeds due to the sheer silliness of the situation, as well as a moment of tenderness, albeit tainted, at the chapter’s conclusion. Other sections of Please work similarly well as discrete slice-of-slacker-life episodes, but taken together they become repetitive and far less gratifying.