Lauren B. Davis’ Book Review, The Holy Book of the Beard by Duff Brenna

Lauren B. Davis

If Tom Waits, Charles Bukowski, Damon Runyon, John Kennedy Toole and Samuel Beckett were all rolled into one literary package, the result would be Duff Brenna’s THE HOLY BOOK OF THE BEARD. It’s a picturesque novel (that sort of satirical work which depicts, in realistic and humorous detail, a rascally, low-class hero living by his wits in a corrupt society). This may not be the book for everyone – if you’re easily offended, or if you prefer Elizabeth Gilbert, say, to the above mentioned authors, this probably isn’t for you. But if you’re no prude, and you like your characters raw, read on..

Jasper Johns, 22 years old, looking for inspiration and love (well, possibly more sex than love) lands in a busted-out San Diego dinner filled with characters from a Vincent Gallo film – Fat Stanley, the owner, who obsesses over the personal ads; Helga and Mary, the middle-aged waitresses, one cancer-stricken, the other eaten up by her past; beautiful Didi Godunov, aspiring poet; Godot, religion professor and faded beatnik philosopher; and Henry Hank, tatterdemalion trickster and holy fool. They are all carefully chosen names.
In some ways, this is not only a picturesque novel, but a bildungsroman for a slightly delayed adolescence. I know young men like Jasper Johns – striving to be writers, restless and a little arrogant, looking for inspiration in squalor, their heroes all slightly depraved and ranting. While the novel is clearly and intentionally over-the-top, it’s only just slightly so. There is much talk (of the ribald variety more often than not) of writing and friendship and love and sex. Deftly balancing on the thin line between parody and cliché, Brenna’s raggedy characters pontificate and flounder, rail against fate and society, and get themselves into a good deal of trouble. By the end of the book – and what an uproarious ride it is — Jasper learns a number of unexpected and spiritual lessons about morality and life.

Brenna’s wit and intelligence are undeniable, his dialogue rich and his prose muscular. This is the sort of book we don’t see often any longer – unabashedly masculine, unashamedly bawdy and brazenly intelligent.

Photo by Helen Tansey

Lauren B. Davis is the author of the novels, The Radiant City, and The Stubborn Season, as well as two collections short stories, An Unrehearsed Desire and Rat Medicine & Other Unlikely Curatives.  Lauren reviews books for THE GLOBE & MAIL and THE LITERARY REVIEW OF CANADA, leads monthly SHARPENING THE QUILL writing workshops in Princeton, New Jersey, and teaches creative writing at the A.C. Wagner Correctional Facility.