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Campus paper setting for comedy

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For readers who spent their college years hanging around campus newspapers -- and isn't that everybody? -- this literary debut by Edmonton Journal books columnist Michael Hingston may well be the Great Canadian Comic Novel.

The Dilettantes is a hilarious portrait of an outsider subculture under double existential threat -- the characters are both arts students and would-be print journalists. And like all great comic novels, it's something more. In this case, a story of awakening from a long, irony-covered slumber.

The novel is set in the present day at The Peak, the student newspaper at suburban Vancouver's Simon Fraser University, while the paper is facing cutthroat competition from the free-circulation Metro. (Yes, it's the Vancouver edition of the chain freebie that meets the Kardashian-update needs of Winnipeg bus riders.)

Features editor Alex, facing graduation, wants to save The Peak, and perhaps give his university years a bit of meaning. Beneath his anxiety about the paper is a need to escape the detachment he's been living with, a detachment that grows out of both popular culture and the university's post-modernist intellectual environment.

Much of the plot focuses on what happens when a B.C.-born movie star decides to enrol as an SFU student and begins to attract media attention to the campus. But the plot is secondary to Hingston's distillation of the spirit of his setting.

Hingston captures the competitive joking of a certain kind of campus life perfectly. Here, for example, is a bit of riffing between two Peak editors discussing a letter that called the paper's humour section "the worst thing ever."

In response, they begin to compose a list of worse things: "Hitler. Stalin. Super Cancer. Stalin with a Hitler Mustache. Hitler if he Could Shoot Cancer Out of His of Fingers. Cake that is Part Chocolate, Part Poo. A Machine that Scalps Orphans."

It's a funny list, in part because of the absurdity and in part because of the comic timing, but it also does a lovely job of mocking the tendency of angry writers at campus newspapers to invoke Hitler.

Hingston's descriptions of the political-cultural environment of SFU provide food for thought and fodder for laughs. "Here the trick was caring too much, or pretending to, or trying convince yourself that you did," he writes. "It was a bumper-sticker arms race; it was a prisoner's dilemma, if the prisoner also subscribed to Adbusters."

Or: "He (Alex) majored in humanities, which was kind of like English, only you watched more movies and could write your final essay about a picture of a vase."

The Dilettantes may not resonate with people who never endured staff meetings and production nights or who did labs instead of term papers. But then again, you don't need to have been a history graduate student or would-be comedian to enjoy Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim or Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar.

Hingston has written an elegy for youth and a kick in the pants for his generation and for generations old enough to remember using Exacto knives and beeswax to put the newspaper together.

Winnipeg writer Bob Armstrong is a former editor of the Red River College Reflector and University of Calgary Gauntlet.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2013 A1

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