Pulp fiction thrills in poetic language

Times Colonist, February 3, 2002
Review by Joe Wiebe

Clint Hutzulak is known for his strong visual sense as a graphic designer — Rayola, the company he and partner Bonnie Light operate out of their Chinatown studio is widely respected as one of the more avant garde design firms on the West Coast. He and Bonnie are a ubiquitous presence in Victoria's arts scene — not only as supporters but also as artists — Clint is co-Artistic Director of Victoria's Tic Toc New Music Festival and has written some short plays for Theatre SKAM. In person, Clint is quiet, self-effacing, and seemingly mild-mannered.

As a result, when I started reading his first novel, The Beautiful Dead End, at a café across the street from his publisher, Anvil Press, I was expecting it to be… quiet, self-effacing and mild-mannered, if a book can be described that way. I intended to sip a coffee and read a few chapters before getting to some other pressing errands. Eighty pages later, when I reluctantly forced myself to stop reading, I was stunned. By no means is it a reflection of its author's outwardly cool and calm demeanour. Quite the opposite in fact; the novel is an enthrallingly visceral and visually stunning work that took hold of me and refused to let go. I couldn't wait to get back to it, and when I finished it I was sorely tempted to go back and read it all over again.

The Beautiful Dead End is an accomplished work, one that defies categorization, breaking new literary ground while still retaining the attention-holding qualities of a pulp-fiction thriller. It is simultaneously a riveting page-turner and a highly contemporary literary novel, showcased by poetically charged language and a visually arresting style of writing that draws the reader in as if watching a movie — no, actually it's more like the reader is in the movie. 

I met up with Clint just before Christmas and asked him about the visual texture of his writing. He acknowledged the connection to film, saying, "As I write, I see it as a movie." When I asked him if he wanted to write for film, he hesitated and then responded, "It seems to me that making a film would be the biggest logistical challenge in a lifetime and I'm amazed that people can actually do it." 

In spite of the filmic style of Hutzulak's writing, The Beautiful Dead End is much more than a glorified screenplay. On the surface, it is a neo-noir thriller, but it is also part speculative fiction. As the book opens, the reader is introduced to the protagonist, Stace, a hard-drinking, tough-loving man who has sacrificed much of his life to the consequences of his reckless decisions. Twenty-two pages into the novel, Stace dies of a drug overdose. Even though he is dead, he still remains the central character, waking up as a ghost stuck in a sort of purgatory while his physical body remains undiscovered. As Emmett, Stace's guide in the ghost world tells him, "I don't know who you are, where you've come from, or how tough you think you are. All that means nothing to me. All that gets boiled away here. What we're left with, what we get down to, is the core. The part of you you haven't ever taken time to look at. Know what I'm saying? The essence." While he awaits the "transfer" out of this limbo state, Stace is compelled to examine his life and to attempt to re-connect with his ex-wife, Lillis Rae, with whom he shared a powerful bond before his criminal pursuits led to deserting her.

Hutzulak uses the thriller convention to generate suspense, and the speculation on the nature of the afterlife acts as a foundation for Stace's quest for self-discovery. However, for that journey itself, the trappings of genre fiction are mostly set aside. The focus is on the characters and their connections with each other, drawn with precise and eloquent prose. Hutzulak's writing has a visceral and sensual quality that allows the reader to inhabit the characters, to feel what they feel, good and bad. There are passages of such startling brilliance that the words seem to rise from the page. It is difficult to extract these moments out of the context of the novel, but here are a few examples of some of Hutzulak's fine prose:

"You used to ask me if I loved you, Stace says. And I would reply, Of course. How much? You'd ask. With everything in me, I'd say. And I'd spread my arms wide as I could, taking in the whole room. But I see now it wasn't all that much. There wasn't enough in me."

"Her eyes hazel, flecked with gold, staring upside down into his, amazed at the shocking intimacy of the thing, the kiss."

"Lillis Rae contemplates her heart. It is, she decides a room with several doors. It is Stace's architecture that shaped her heart — a room he always moved through awkwardly, hesitantly. His hands blind in her, searching for levers, devices, entrance and exit, his hands on her body at night, feeling his way through her heart, missing always the still centre, the quiet point around which she revolves. It is not him I feel inside me now, she thinks."

The novel is filled with such eloquently worded moments. The reader is constantly torn between the desire to savour each delicious paragraph and the urgency to turn the page. 

The book is so startlingly fresh and confident that I felt compelled to ask Hutzulak about his writing process. It took him twelve years, on and off, and he doesn't recommend the roundabout route he took to completing the book, describing it as a "sort of organic accretion. I wrote scenes that interested me and then I tried to create a plot. It's a terrible way." He spent a lot of time moving scenes around, trying to find the best structure for the story. Again, he equated his writing to film-making: "It's like in a movie, the way that I think that they're done, they'll do scene 4, and they'll do scene 72, and they'll do scene 140, and then it gets all shuffled in the editing process."

Though he worked on it for a long time, the novel really did not come together until Anvil agreed to publish it. "Basically when I was very close to finishing it, I realized that I'd sketched it for about eleven and a half years. Then I wrote the entire book between August and November." Clearly, all of the "sketching" and planning he did paid off, because the finished product is a polished gem. 

Near the end of the novel, when Stace's quest to understand his life is complete and he begins to undergo the final transfer to whatever lies next for him, Hutzulak affects a startling and fresh change in tone, switching to first-person as Stace remembers the three most important relationships in his life: his father, mother, and Lillis Rae. The shift in voice has a remarkable effect, drawing the reader into Stace's life even further. These final scenes represent some of the strongest and most evocative writing in the book. For example, the sensual love scene between Lillis Rae and Stace in better days finished with this: "Maybe one day I will be able to come back to this afternoon and see it for the first time and know none of what comes after. Like you, reading it now on this page." Breaking with convention and addressing the reader directly is a risky choice, but it is an extremely effective tool in intensifying the reader's empathy and involvement in the novel. 

Hutzulak has also coordinated the production of a collection of music to accompany The Beautiful Dead End. Though it is a rather unique concept in the world of literature, Clint "always wanted to have a soundtrack for it." About five years ago, he approached musicians to write music inspired by specific sections of the novel. The styles reflect the type of music he liked to listen to while writing the book, and in his own words, "the whole thing has got a dark, country-tinged, chamber, ambient, instrumental sound… really dusty, lyrical guitar playing, Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno." The music he played for me suited the novel perfectly.

The book was out in stores on January 15th, and Clint is still putting the finishing touches on the CD, which should come out sometime in the spring. While I can understand the urge to wait for the CD, The Beautiful Dead End is a brilliant debut novel all on its own and, coming from a smaller publisher, is bound to sell out before too long. Don't miss out. 

Copyright 2002 by Joe Wiebe