A black man, a trans woman, and an Irish immigrant walk into a gallery. It sounds like the beginning of an off-colour joke, the type that makes its audience wince in anticipation. The type of joke that in these modern (hopefully more enlightened) times one might hesitate to tell. Uh-oh, we think, alarm bells ringing. But this isn’t the set-up to some dodgy punchline, it’s the subject of Patrick Warner’s third novel, My Camino, a story of three misfits bound together and a satiric look at the art world, identity politics, and political correctness. There are those alarm bells again (which ring with all the more urgency once we flip to the back page and spy the author’s photo). There is a lot to unpack here, but there is also much to enjoy.
Let us begin with the good. Warner is a poet as well as a novelist, and his prose is a pleasure to read. Rich and lyrical, agile and darkly humorous, it lends itself well to a droll voice:
You gotta love the language of cathedrals. The botafumeiro (Galician for censer, not to be confused with “fuhgeddaboudit,” Brooklyn for censor) was big as a garbage can.
Such are the musings of Apostle John, the first-person narrator (and the first of the trio mentioned above). The perspective occasionally flips to the other two characters, Floss, a gallerist and general powerhouse of a woman, and Budsy, an outrageous and high-strung artist, but it is Apostle John who is our primary guide. An artist himself, though of a more measured, less invested variety, John is irreverent and frequently hilarious, with a sharp eye for hypocrisy and a sharp tongue to go with it. He is the vehicle through which Warner presents his story, pulling no punches, and occasionally the character behind which he shields himself.
“Let there be light, etc.,” John dryly says as he sets the scene of the New York contemporary art world, which has “oozed” its way across the bridge to Brooklyn. An artsy crowd, complete with horn-rimmed glasses and artisanal scarves, has gathered at Floss’s gallery for the “Night of Nights,” where Budsy’s artistic star is set to rise and propel all three of them to greater heights.
But a year on, the dream hasn’t quite materialized; even satire cannot escape the fact that an artist’s life is a hard one. The novel then moves abruptly from Brooklyn to Spain, where the group embarks on a reverse pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago, cycling it from end to beginning — as the plot cycles between character introspections and interactions, and on to a full-on revenge fantasy.
Why cycle the Camino in reverse? Why not? In fact, this would appear to be Warner’s answer to a lot of questions we might have. “Can and will,” Budsy says of a potentially offensive wardrobe choice early on. It’s a response that could serve as the novel’s subtitle. But as readers, we ask ourselves, Who and what, exactly, are we laughing at?
Satire is a slippery business, its nature inherently crafty. Those who are in on the joke and those who are out of it are in a constant state of tension. “Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own,” so said Jonathan Swift. “Which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.” The nature of satire — to push boundaries and simultaneously evade censure — is something Warner evidently relishes (see the aforementioned list of characters).
But then there’s that murky pool of identity politics Swift didn’t have to contend with. These days, most would dare dip only a toe. Patrick Warner, though, has waded in up to his ears, and he is asking us to dive in after him.
Far be it from me to deny a person the right to write, paint, act, or generally portray a subject matter that doesn’t directly relate to their own culture, world view, or day-to-day life. Any such denial would be a dangerous precedent, one that would surely suppress our cultural imagination. (After all, Agatha Christie didn’t have to commit murder in order to write her many books.) But — and this is a big but — the absence of such precedent should not come at the cost of exploiting those who are imagined in the process.
Here we come to the novel’s problems. First, Floss’s previous life as a man is frequently imposed upon her as something she cannot escape, nor does it cease to frame how John, one of her closest friends, sees her. “Who better than Floss to know what men were like?” he asks at one point. “Emotionally, Floss was a lot like a guy,” he comments elsewhere.
Second, consider John’s voice: all the instances of “brother” and “word,” and even that “shee‑it” thrown in toward the end. No matter how in on the joke John is, no matter how consciously or unconsciously the character is supposed to use this language, is the decision to dance with appropriation a productive one? To phrase it another way, does it add anything? I would argue that it doesn’t; it only distracts. At no point is this voice critically engaged. It is an oversimplified given, in the way it’s a given that Floss used to be a man.
None of this is to say characters such as these shouldn’t be written about. But narratives of social othering aren’t dissolved here. Instead, they’re reinforced, which is frustrating, as I believe the author intends the opposite. There is, perhaps, a naive attitude of “life’s hard for everyone, get over it” at play. As Apostle John puts it, “No matter how you slice it, no matter how thick and gilt-framed your rose-coloured glasses, the outcome is always the same: we all lose in the end.” Then he says, “Love, not hate, brothers and sisters. Tolerance, not ridicule.” An eyebrow raises quizzically.
While I wouldn’t call My Camino exploitative, it certainly isn’t sensitive. Warner’s conceit is to set the book in the art world, with its layers of perspective and subjectiveness and, in some cases, delusion. It dares you to judge too quickly — to fall too quickly and too vehemently — onto one side of this or that debate. Warner may be aiming his attack at the knee-jerk polarization of our current culture, at pretension and hypocrisy, at herd mentality, but he falls into the same trap by choosing characters who are intentionally provocative and then handling them in the manner he does. There’s something of the child who piously chants, “We mustn’t say ‘shit,’ ” purely for the delight of cursing.
These characters are too simple in elements of their representation, yet they are often complicated and detailed in their internal wrestlings. So no, they’re not exploitative, but Warner is certainly using them to prove a point — and the mudslinging continues.
Ultimately, many of Warner’s jokes are funny, even if the satiric intent doesn’t entirely hold up. Satire is meant to be constructive, to let us laugh and learn, not to burn the place down. Books like this ought to exist in flux. There should never be one prescription for what a novel can or cannot be, or what one can or cannot write. Can one? Yes. Should one? That’s another matter entirely. These are important conversations to have, and this book is part of that conversation, even if not always successful in its engagement.