‘Audacious? Yes. Dizzying? A little, yes.’

Run the Bead
by Dustin Cole

Berlin: Soyos Books, 2023
$18.99 (USD) / 9780645795851

Reviewed by Theo Dombrowski


Early in Dustin Cole’s sophomore novel, Run the Bead, the Vancouver author briefly draws attention to a minor character who writes science fiction under the pseudonym R.F. Hale. Much later, the author has his protagonist scan a wall of science fiction and fix on one he’s never heard of. The author? R.F. Hale. As part of a plot, the convergence is insignificant. For what it reveals about Run the Bead, though, the convergence is telling. 

The publisher, Soyos Books, apparently aims to promote “alternative fiction.” This fact, too, is telling: the tiny narrative nugget of convergence reveals a care and craft in the novel that is, in several subtly subversive ways, “alternative.” 

It is true that a quick overview reveals nothing especially alternative. The timeline is linear; the language is generally clear as a bell; the story is set in a short, coherent, period of time. 

Ward, a welder in Vancouver, quits his job to work on a northern oil pipeline. Guvinda, a former soldier, runs afoul of the law and flees Vancouver for northern British Columbia. David, a policeman, follows a series of dispiriting cases in Vancouver until, thanks to his wife, he makes a change. And each of these men takes a turn (not quite regularly) occupying the narrative point of view.

As any reader of British Columbian novels will have noticed, such “ordinary” men are well represented, though usually with something of the loose cannon about them. Cole, however, takes the premise of the ordinary man and runs with it.  

Indeed, in many ways it is hard to imagine a novel more thoroughly steeped in one version of male culture (especially for the two dominant characters, Ward and Guvinda). Popular song after song, mostly metal, lays out the soundtrack to a culture of physical labour, male-oriented television shows, junk/fast food, alcohol in pubs, alcohol out of pubs, recreational drugs, low grade violence, and, above all, cars, cars, and more cars. The world of Run the Bead is shot through with talk about car models, car repairs, car motor function, and even car chases. 

Author Dustin Cole

And to reinforce the impact, the narrative voice often taps into the corresponding idiom: “Ross let a joint slide from a doob tube. Ward handed him a red Bic. Ross fired it up, fixed a run with some spit on the pinky, hauled on it, passed it over.” Unwaveringly, Cole dishes up page after page of undigested “male” dialogue shot through with lines like “He is such a daft little cunt. Dude’s gonna get ragdolled.” 

Along with the ordinary, however, cue the less ordinary: without so much as batting an eye, Cole can shift linguistic registers, suddenly describing a shopkeeper with “periwinkle eyes” and “piscine lips,” or observing, archly, “Ward took a draught of the carbonated beverage, eructated at length.” Hmm, “piscine,” “eructated”? And the sudden jolt into elevated language at such points is counterbalanced at others by evocatively lyric passages: “myriad lanes on the water surface bent and twisted the light, illumined by the tall dial of the sun, the river dancing and shimmering into, into, into itself.” 

How we are to read such contrasts is suggested at a funeral, when an academic colleague reports Ward’s grandfather as having said, “each book ventures to offer an order of the hitherto unknown.” The “hitherto unknown” seems to be exactly what Cole is bent on showing under the carapace of maleness. 

David, for instance, police officer par excellence and exactly as tough and gruff as his job requires, is also movingly tender with his severely disabled son. More important, in the course of the novel, his entire internal life collapses: “diurnal flipshifts opened the spigot and his soul, spirit, aura, whatever it was, drained out.” 

Ward’s discontent is at least as deep as David’s. As Cole writes, Ward “knew the word overwhelmed, had heard people use it when they were stressed out, but had never applied the label to himself.” 

Guvinda, though, reveals the most complex and raw interior life—starting with his background as  “ex-military, longshoreman, sadist—available for intimidation, arson, assassination.” 

Capable of unpredictable manic fits—at one point he spontaneously hijacks a backhoe and starts it wildly spinning in its tracks; at another, unprovoked, he threatens a random stranger who, he suddenly decides, is a “cocky little fuck.” Significantly, though, as Cole repeatedly makes clear, Guvinda is riven with flashbacks, even “reveries,” of numbing military experiences in Afghanistan: “he had seen so much suffering he stopped noticing it.”

Clearly, the surfaces in Cole’s world are just that: surfaces. Extending this principle to the methods of narration, he carefully implants “easter eggs,” tiny throbs of association lurking beneath the surfaces. Guvinda’s name, for example, happens to be an alternative name for the chief Hindu god, Krishna. At one point, out of the blue, in a scene in a garage, of all places, the unbeliever protagonist starts chanting a mantra. It is hard not to believe that Cole realizes that many readers will not recognize the mantra to be devoted to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, prosperity, and abundance: “ohm-guum-shreem-mah- lok-shmee-yay-na-mah-ha.”

Similar half-buried glints are everywhere. Leonard Cohen’s book of poetry Let Us Compare Mythologies is summoned faintly as Guvinda and Miranda “compared mythologies.” A famous line from Homer’s epic poem about the wandering Odysseus likewise flickers at another: “to the east [he saw the] rose fingered dawn.” Another chapter ends “Oh Shanti Shanti oh Shanti,” using the Sanskrit term for “the peace which passeth understanding,” perhaps best known in the West via T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.”

The very epigraph of the book is even more suggestive. Drawn from, a cryptic, haunting song, “Lullaby” by Scott Walker, the epigraph appears later in the novel—“Tonight my assistant will hear/The canals of Mars”—but this time followed by the next line, “His cap/will be empty.” Though many have tried to explain the song, only in an interview much after the song was written did Walker reveal the meaning of elusive words: assisted suicide.  

But what are we to make about all of this? Ward’s wife Robin, a science fiction author, publishes a novel that, according to its cover blurb, is “at once psychologically convincing and naturalistically depicted, yet overlain with an ambiguity by turns paranoid and conspiratorial….” 

It is hard not to feel that the words relate directly to Run the Bead. Though both psychologically rich and staunchly “realistic,” Cole’s novel also is shot through with unsettling ambiguity, not just in some of the allusions but, even more, in the final, harrowing pages of the book: as events become unhinged, menace and tension devolve into the book’s final line: “[Ward] held chaos in his bare hands.”

Though, indeed, “chaos” seems more than appropriate at this point, Cole balances chaos with a counter tension. Again, he uses Robin as a conduit for some intriguing suggestions. 

In her new novel she wants to create a sense of “moments of return, variations of the same image, character, plot, details that curled back into themselves….” Just as he creates the convergence whereby Ward happens to pick up a novel written under Robin’s pseudonym, so Cole directs his characters and their lives to intersect in hauntingly purposed “moments of return.” 

At one point, for example, David, unknown to Ward, interrogates him about an incident of threatened violence—involving, as he doesn’t know, Guvinda. At another, Clint, an obliquely menacing truck driver who has given Ward a lift, reappears, darkly, just when Ward is feeling uneasy for other reasons. Most important, though, by complete—and deeply weird—coincidence, Ward and Guvinda both ditch Vancouver and end up working on the same pipeline crew in remote and improbable Chetwynd: “What had been separate, individuated a moment ago, was now fused into one.”

The underplayed ambiguity, though, is most subversive when the novel doesn’t…quite…behave itself. While readers of most “serious” novels have good reason to expect “progressive” values and ideas, Cole does little to support such expectations. Amongst the flashpoints for progressive principles, conspiracy theories and oil pipeline construction loom large. Buckle up, gentle readers, and prepare for what our author does with these.

Consider Ward’s reaction to his good work buddy, Ross: “He liked to hear Ross talk about the Alliance and the Digital Army and the Luciferian Cabal of pedophiles, their human trafficking rings and adrenochrome harvesting….” As for his attitude towards women’s rights, Ward reacts angrily to his girlfriend’s discussion of “gender theory.” Likewise, David, decent father and decent policeman, wonders of Covid protocols he is about to reinforce: “Was it just his imagination or was he going out now to aid and abet a totalitarian power grab in the name of health?” Similarly suspicious of Covid protocols, Guvinda hears breaking news about the Pfizer vaccine and he mulls, “No mention of medical apartheid. No mention of a medico-bureaucratic coup.”

Similarly, early on, the red hot environmental and aboriginal issues surrounding the pipeline are documented at length, but both concerns are undercut by Ward’s bland indifference to “politics.” It is no accident that the title of the book Run the Bead, perhaps selected because it is almost lyrical, is spelled out to be a welding procedure. Exquisitely documented in technical detail, the Herculean project of building a pipeline becomes, in Cole’s hands, almost romanticized, what he calls in one particularly elevated passage “an industrial pastoral.”

The climax of the oil theme, though, is presented as a separate, detached piece from the perspective of 250 million years hence, methodically detailing the geo-history behind creating oil deposits, yet including a withering recognition of the “environmental cynicism and misanthropic attitudes prevalent during the Late Anthropocene.” Readers are left uneasy—exactly, it seems, as Cole intends. 

Equally unsettling, but in an entirely different way, is the manner in which Cole breaks the narrative flow, depositing passages, some pages long, that are nothing but streams of information, information, and yet more information. Most pivotally, he says a lot about welding: “…then I’ll run the root. Stand by, hand me rods. When I’m done, you grind out the slag. On the next join you’ll grind the rust off the land and the beveled pipeface.” 

Such passages of information are hugely variable. One short passage, for example, reads, “the Renaissance had revived interest in ancient texts and ideas, like Gnosticism, hermeticism, the Qabalah, which informed Rosicrucianism.” Longer passages might itemize the contents of a policeman’s “duty bag.” Others are purely fictional, pages from a policeman’s case notes or even Ward’s grandfather’s extensive list of academic publications. 

And perhaps most jaw-dropping is a long, long, account of the bizarre claims of aliens in our midst. And just so you know, “The blue Avians have fifth density consciousness. They’re in our solar system to aid us in transitioning from third to fourth density consciousness.” 

Audacious? Yes. Dizzying? A little, yes. Justified as a narrative technique? Some readers will be desperate with irritation. Others, though, will be fascinated, drawn in, reading and rereading these passages. 

Of all these almost stand-alone passages, however, perhaps the most compelling is the opening.  A man feels ill. His symptoms worsen. Within pages he is rushed to the hospital and is soon dead.  The cause? Covid. 

While the entire rest of the novel plays out, Covid acts as a sombre background, as much a kind of social “soundtrack” as the sequence of metal songs: masks on, masks off, masks on, masks off. Through using the pandemic, Cole has not just tapped into a powerful mechanism for threading his novel together, but also instilled a permeating sense of uneasiness, nowhere more than in the puzzling but evocative words of the epigraph, “Tonight my assistant will hear/The canals of Mars.”

[Editor’s note: the publisher is probably the easiest way to obtain a copy of Cole’s novel. See also our interview with Dustin Cole of August 15, 2021]


Theo Dombrowski

Born on Vancouver Island, Theo Dombrowski grew up in Port Alberni and studied at the University of Victoria and later in Nova Scotia and London, England. With a doctorate in English literature, he returned to teach at Royal Roads, the University of Victoria, and finally at Lester Pearson College at Metchosin. He also studied painting and drawing at the Banff School of Fine Arts and at the University of Victoria. [Editors note: Theo Dombrowski has written and illustrated several coastal walking and hiking guides, including Secret Beaches of the Salish Sea (Heritage House, 2012), Seaside Walks of Vancouver Island (Rocky Mountain Books, 2016), and Family Walks and Hikes of Vancouver Island (RMB, 2018, reviewed by Chris Fink-Jensen), as well as When Baby Boomers Retire. He has recently reviewed books by Deborah Willis, Lindsay Wong, Bill Engleson, Dan Gawthrop, Lyndon Grove, Ihor Holubizky, & Brent Raycroft, David Fushtey, and Aaron Bushkowsky for BCR. Theo Dombrowski lives at Nanoose Bay. Visit his website here.]


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

4 comments on “‘Audacious? Yes. Dizzying? A little, yes.’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This