||A Review of: Continental Drifter
by Lynda Grace Philippsen
Prompted by that urge to roam and a desire to escape a confining
relationship, the thirty-something author of Continental Drifter
undertakes a journey-a diagonal swath across a continent from Dawson,
Yukon, to Key West, Florida, by Greyhound. Yes, that's right, by
Although Dave Cameron is "groomed for the workplace" with
a degree in journalism, he has an aversion to shaving, as well as
work in its conventional sense. What he prefers to do is "meet
a few personalities from the fringe and witness a few sublime
scenes." In the author's words, "a harebrained scheme,"
but apparently not completely ridiculous, as both "the good
people at Greyhound" and the Canada Council for the Arts Quest
Program bought it. Now that it's a book, the question is, should
Equipped with a back pack containing a sleeping bag, a change of
clothes, a raincoat, and toiletries, Cameron leaves Dawson for
Whitehorse in late August via the aptly nicknamed Agony Wagon. He
hopes "to travel and scribble and learn, ignoring, when possible,
how I might sell the particulars when I returned home." For
the duration he is "not a journalist," but "just a
man keeping a journal."
He hopes to stumble on characters serendipitously-or better still
that they will find him, a tactic he believes will keep the narrative
honest. Before leaving Dawson, Cameron records two such encounters
with locals. A native man approaches him "two dollars short"
and Cameron obliges. They share a bottle of wine and mock the
"freshly laundered foursome," tourists passing through
in their "motorized monsters."
"I like to think I'm different than they are," Cameron
asserts to his companion (whom he calls Red Max "because that's
what we drank together"). To the reader he concedes, "I
was, in most ways, just another tourist, a slightly more curious
cow who occasionally strayed briefly from the herd." This tenor
of ironic self-awareness established in the first chapter is a motif
that rescues the book. Without that, anyone outside Cameron's narrow
demographic (especially anyone in "pressed slacks" with
a preference for "cloth napkin dining") might, if interested
at all, lose interest quickly.
Red Max urges Cameron, "Tell don't show. Tell the story until
it is simple and true." Cameron reflects on this: "Even
in my rapid-onset drunkenness his comment rang strangely. The
opposite suggestion, show don't tell, was what appeared on every
list of writing do's I have ever been instructed to read and obey.
But Red Max's tradition was storytelling."
In simplest terms the oral-narrative genre is constructed of loosely
connected episodes. Details are highly familiar to the listener;
landmarks are emblematic; the flat characters are often caricatures;
and the itinerant hero is a visionary who heralds new values.
Continental Drifter, then, is a crossover between the print form
in which it appears and the oral tradition in which its style
originates. Its readers shouldn't expect the usual narrative arc
or character development, but should prepare to become actively
engaged listeners who are "responsible for image creation, for
adding shape and colour as desired."
The other encounter recorded before his departure is one with a
prospector who agrees to take Cameron out to his claim. "The
freedom of going out and doing things my own way, making things
happen" turns out to be "several hours and sixty-odd
buckets" for "three flakes of gold."Apposite
foreshadowing of both tasks which face him: the journey and the
construction of the narrative.
All kinds of flakes, a motley collection of eccentrics held together
by their shared poverty, loneliness, kooky passions, and alcohol-hazed,
full-of-it philosophies populate the book. These are the hucksters
and clowns in the "ongoing carnival of humanity," and the
voices in the narrative are theirs as much as Cameron's. You recognize
them and all their stories; you know them no matter what your milieu.
Their quirks are the same old irritants that prompt you to run away
in the first place, force you to run smack-dab into yourself, provoke
you to make an abrupt about turn, and make you grateful to head
straight back home to what you wanted to shake off. This is
essentially the scope of the book and a fact not lost on the
quasi-hero narrator: "I had ridden humanity's carousel, and
now it was time to hop off-the music of the people ring-a-linging
behind me-and rate the animated whirl."
The book is a conceit: the excruciating road trip, the hostels,
cheap motels, and numerous alcohol-clouded encounters with assorted
riff-raff form an extended metaphor for any life. The predictability
and tedium of events on the road and the fruitless search for
"effortless connection" is a cutting commentary on
existence. And in that sense the writer has achieved his aim: he
has told it and it is simple and it is true. You could say it is
too true; you feel like you have been there for the whole ride.
Cameron, with droll understatement, says it himself before he gets
any farther than Dawson Creek (or if your geography is not so hot,
less than a quarter of the way through the book): " my trip
had come to resemble quotidian life."
The ending, always a challenge in any literary work, rings true.
It brings with it that travel-worn sense of enough already. Sweet
relief-we can go home.
As Cameron knows, people often read to escape the deadly boredom
of their lives, not to endure the monotony of someone else's.
Pondering the "physical act of writing" that awaits him,
N. S. Sherlock muses, "I would have to be entertaining, at
least." To give him his due, in an artless way, he is. Not
particularly enthralled with the idea of getting on a Greyhound bus
or suffering "station hours" with a "shaggy tramp"
and others of that ilk, even though I wouldn't have to leave my
fireside, I turned the pages willingly enough.
Writers teach themselves their art by doing it, and the success of
a work can be measured in many ways. As first books go, this one
is solidly built. The genre chosen is ideal for the subject matter,
though the form gives the story a predictable quality. The prose
is competently crafted with only two objective pronoun errors-probably
deliberate for the informality of fault. The oral style of loosely
gathered episodes has been worked into a tight, cohesive, and flowing
text without losing its vocal character-a thing not so easily
achieved. Cameron wisely resists exposition which many writers
can't; he simply tells the stories, allowing the reader to interpret
them. For the most part, Cameron's ability to "secrete [himself]
in order to get the words right" and "pass sentences on
sensory perception" is evident, although, some sentences should
not have passed.
In the thirteenth chapter Cameron crosses the border into the States,
something he could have done in a few lines and moved on. Sometimes
when seeking the extra-ordinary in the ordinary one finds the
mundane. What's simply dull would have been better cut. Instead,
Cameron lapses into customs-official clichs, worn dialogue, and
syntax stacked with adjectives-thirteen in the first two sentences.
Was it just an unlucky day?
Another quibble is with those moments where Cameron projects thoughts
(usually his own) onto characters. "He pursed his lips, and
appeared to be chewing on the inside of his cheek. Presumably he
was turning over thoughts, about the prairie, how its endlessness
can seem a strange restraint, or about shift's end, a lawn chair
and grilled meat and something cold to drink." (Italics mine.)
Such instances feels contrived and the effect is jarring.
Also, several attempts at humour through word play flounder: Here
to stay, gone to sorrow. Cameron is much funnier when he doesn't
try to be. Waiting for the "once-daily southbound bus,"
he spends five hours in The Golden Corral, a buffet restaurant,
eating "well and slowly." With three more hours to endure,
he nonchalantly steps "out into the main drag."
To write a simple tale without being simplistic is an enormous
challenge. In part, Cameron succeeds, but much of the folk wisdom
gleaned-it would be wrong to call it philosophy-is no deeper than
a bottle and wears after a while. Missing is that sustained
excitement created by words you know you'll want to re-read often-words
that make you slow down as you advance because you want the pleasure
Earlier in the journey, when confronted with doubt, Cameron fretted,
"was the road trip justified; was I gleaning enough wisdom
from the winos and waitresses across the land? What of singular
value had I observed?" Before he had left Dawson he had made
the sardonic observation that the reward after a day's quest for
gold was, "All dirt and almost no pay." Cameron, however,
can take credit for more than a few flakes-and the odd nugget.