The Refugee by Robert Donlak

I believe it was Aaron Clarey who said that people under the age of 30 should not even attempt to write fiction; if I’m wrong on this, someone feel free to correct me in the comments. It’s a sentiment I largely agree with. Not only do young people lack the necessary life experience in order to craft convincing and interesting stories, even if they had said experience, their brains themselves put them at a disadvantage. Neurological research shows that the brain doesn’t finish developing until age 25, part of the reason why you’re not legally allowed to lease a car until you’re that age (among other things). Rare is the young writer who can pull off fiction, and even then it’s usually a glorified retelling of their own lives (Bonjour TristesseOn the Road).

Is Donlak’s debut novel, written when he was in his twenties, worthy enough to be mentioned in the same breath as those classics? No.

As I’ve said before, it doesn’t bring me any joy to pan a book by anyone in this part of the Internet, but I have to call it like I see it. While it’s far from unreadable, The Refugee is a clunker of a debut, suffocated by its overwrought prose and sickening self-indulgence. The only things that make it worth buying are its low price and because it has enough flashes of brilliance—enough signs of the talent that Donlak would become—to ease the journey.

As long as you view The Refugee as the equivalent of watching sausage being ground up in a factory—watching the growth of Donlak as a man and writer—you won’t be too disappointed.

Mind you, it takes a while before you get to the good stuff. A while. Check out the opening paragraph and you’ll see why:

I was fleeing everything. You name it, I was fleeing it. Escaping it; trying to get away from life as I had come to know it. Life was in its ever flourishing greedy, despicable decrepitude. This was the sick world that surrounded me – no, us – everywhere. What a sad and obnoxious piece of shit society had become, I thought begrudgingly – in that tiny tin box in the sky. I sat jammed in a seat that was too narrow for my skinny ass. Sitting next to me is a fat man; a fat obnoxious business man who refuses to look at my unshaven hoodlum state. You know, because he’s off in his immortal world where the universe is paved in ignorant greedy money roads. His high teacup fantasies, his martinis after work, his second drink of the flight. Well fuck him!

Holy purple prose, Batman! Not even a page in and already my grading hand is twitching to mark everything up in red ink. This has to be one of the most absurdly puffed-up paragraphs I’ve ever read in a published work. Redundancy abounds, from restating “fleeing” in three sentences to stating that the guy sitting next to him is “fat” twice to the whiny dirges about what a “piece of shit society had become.” And “despicable decrepitude?” I couldn’t help but think of Daffy Duck lisping that one out: “You’re despicable!”

The Refugee is a semi-autobiographical novel following Robert (presumably Donlak’s literary surrogate), a young writer who flees his boring inland Canadian town for the excitement of Victoria, where he can pursue his dreams of being an artist. Along the way, he bangs a lot of girls (somehow hiding everything from his live-in girlfriend Lauryn), does a lot of drugs, and eventually goes back home after reality catches up with him.

Okay, we’re on decent footing here. Realistically, ennui and decadence are about the only topics a young novelist can believably tackle; it worked for Jack Kerouac and Françoise Sagan. But here’s the thing; your writing has to have some humility and humor in order to pull this off. The Refugee falls apart mainly because Robert is such a self-absorbed little shit that it’s almost impossible to empathize with him, going on little tirades like this:

Don’t underestimate the power of poetry. Poets have been slain in countries because they are deemed dangerous men. Artists and writers have been banished from their countries because they are sinister towards the consciousness of the masses; they would fill their heads with hope. That’s what they’re afraid of. The poet is the fiercest soldier on the playing field, and we’ve languished behind the fence too long, it will reach someone, I promise – I am living proof to you. Take these words to heart. I too am dying inside.

Oh come off it, you halfwit Holden Caulfield! You’re not the second coming of Solzhenitsyn, you’re an unemployed hipster living in one of the most boring and unremarkable countries in the world. The only thing that could possibly kill you is your bloated ego.

And yet, without the slightest hint of self-awareness, Robert keeps throwing in these little asides trying to show us how convinced he is of the importance of his art. You want to jump in a time machine, slap young Donlak across the face, then strap him down in a Clockwork Orange-helmet and make him watch Barton Fink while force-feeding him LSD. Robert’s entitlement and vanity finally come to a head in one lengthy whine about how “hard” it is to be a poet, with this line in particular setting me off:

…You will take beatings from your family because they think you are taking advantage of them, because you’re lazy, that you won’t get a ‘real’ job and run around with fantasies of poetic muses – to them anyone could do it, only they wouldn’t want to, or no one can do it, cuz they don’t understand…

Hey genius, you do know that most artists/writers/musicians have day jobs, right? Lydia Lunch was a waitress at CBGB. When the Velvet Underground collapsed, Lou Reed was so poor he had to beg his father for a job. Hunter Thompson worked a million shit jobs, from copy boy for Time to low-paid sports writer, before he became famous. If your art doesn’t pay, you have to shut up and wash dishes (or wait tables or whatever) until it does. Frankly, The Refugee reminds me of that godawful Canadian “art” film Vivid. Fuck, they’re even about the same thing; obnoxious, self-important artists who agonize over how awesome they are while leeching off of their girlfriends.

Is there something in the water up in Canada that turns ordinary men into crybaby art fags?

The Refugee’s wonky prose doesn’t help things either. As is typical of first-time writers, Donlak lards up his sentences with adjectives and superfluous detail until they tear themselves apart under their own weight. The novel’s editing is also less than stellar, which combined with the workshop-style prose made it a struggle for me to keep my eyes from glazing over whole paragraphs.

Where the novel is redeemed is in its detailing of Robert’s sexual adventures. Donlak approaches the girls he fucks with an odd detachment that matches the tone of the rest of the book. There are also a number of other passages that made me chuckle in amusement. Additionally, given the Bonjour Tristesse/On the Road-esque themes of The Refugee, you might get more out of the book if you’re a teenager or in your early twenties. A commonality between all these novels of youthful ennui is that they’re unreadable when you get older; I loved On the Road when I was a teenager, but I can barely tolerate it today.

Other than that, The Refugee is a mediocre, clumsy novel interesting not for what it is but who wrote it. If you’re looking for a mildly interesting tale of masculinity and artistry, a milepost showing how far Donlak has come since then, check it out. If you’re looking for a good, stand-alone book, skip it.

Click here to buy The Refugee.

Read Next: Donlak’s Guide to Girls (How to Pick Up) by Robert Donlak