Cruising, laughing, dying (and Liberace)

Channel Surfing in the Sea of Happiness
by Guy Babineau

Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2024
$24.95 / 9781770867499

Reviewed by Drew Rowsome


Guy Babineau’s Channel Surfing in the Sea of Happiness was originally published in late 1998. The first story in the collection, “Chairman Mao and the Spiders from Mars,” seemed familiar, so I may have read it then.

I’ve enjoyed reading it again. 

Victoria’s Babineau has a subtle quick queer wit, and the slice-of-life the story presents is given depth by the subterfuge sexuality the narrator reluctantly describes. This being a re-release, the story takes on an unusual resonance as it is a nostalgic piece from a viewpoint about which we are also nostalgic. Instead of being one lens too many, this adds an extra layer that is quite haunting. While the gay life of 1999 is not the gay life of 2024, many aspects are the same.

The key difference is that by the late ‘90s AIDS had been on the forefront of the gay experience for over a decade. 

Channel Surfing in the Sea of Happiness is structured with multiple stories in two threads and two standalone but related tales. The first, and dominant, thread begins in the first-person with “Chairman Mao and the Spiders from Mars.” We are introduced to Trevor, who worships David Bowie. For context, the story is set, initially, in 1974 when Bowie released Diamond Dogs; the story was published about when Bowie released Hours, the first album simultaneously released on the internet; and re-published in 2024 when Bowie had been dead for eight years. As Babineau writes of Liberace, another celebrity metaphor cropping up in Channel Surfing in the Sea of Happiness:

Legends lasted thousands of years thousands of years ago. Posterity didn’t mean what it
used to. Now we consumed updated versions of the past at an astonishing rate, gnawing
at them voraciously. Never sated, we kept hungering for fresh versions of it, or old ones
with a saucy new twist.

Again, written in the ‘90s, gaining resonance in 2024. But the fate of celebrities in the zeitgeist, no matter how culturally and queerly significant both Bowie and Liberace are, is trifling enough to be satirized in one of the standalone stories. In “Forgetting Pauline Kael,” the celebrated New Yorker film reviewer Pauline Kael is unknown to a young gay. The AIDS epidemic and its effect on gay men and the zeitgeist was far from trifling but, frighteningly, is a distant event to readers born around 1999. Trevor is in high school and learning to cruise in “Chairman Mao and the Spiders from Mars,” which also features the news about Rock Hudson. By “Why God Forgives Our Sins,” Trevor’s family is in turmoil over how to handle Trevor’s illness at Thanksgiving, let alone deal with his new boyfriend. By “Heart Deco,” Trevor is gone and the people around him are preparing for an AIDS benefit while struggling to live around his memory.

At this point it is crucial to allay the concerns of any reader with AIDS fatigue. Babineau is possessed of a gentle humanity and all the characters are rounded and tend to the sassy. “Why God Forgives Our Sins” in particular captures that struggle, and the humour, sometimes dark, required to cope with a communal pandemic and intolerable death rate. The stories focus on the surviving, not the victimhood. Trevor creates a propagandistic graphic novel that is—

a visual Odyssean hero’s quest through a nightmare world of bigots, bullies, misinformation, disinformation, malignant physical decay, dying horribly, then the denouement; he rises like
a Phoenix, transformed into a superhero fighting ignorance from his fabulous throne in a
gay club at the end of the rainbow.

Author Guy Babineau (photo: courtesy of the author)

Much like what Babineau does with the Trevor thread. Accent on the “fabulous.” The other thread, from which the collection takes its title, is the adventures of Monsieur Delacroix and a different—or maybe not—first-person narrator (Trevor’s story switches to third person after his introduction). The pair are down on their luck scam artists who picture themselves as disruptors of the system. They are also hilarious and in the midst of a sexually enigmatic but emotionally intense gay relationship. The Sea of Happiness is a tacky nautical-themed Chicago bar, but the duo also travel to Las Vegas where appearances are even more plastic and contrived. Monsieur Delacroix insists that there is nothing beneath the surface, but both he and Babineau are obsessed with shiny surfaces and what they conceal.

Monsieur Delacroix is a philosopher of the queerest and most annoyingly endearing kind. One of their schemes is smuggling antique typewriters, which is not only a metaphor but is also prescient in the year before Y2K, and a Tom Hanks cliché in 2024. The narrator of “Forgetting Pauline Kael” describes another character succinctly in a way that could apply to Monsieur Delacroix:

He was the only person I knew who still called his male friends “girl” or said things like “smell her” without irony. His vernacular was furnished with doilies and throw pillows. Joey used to joke that Hart was like Jurassic Park, that somebody found a chunk of petrified amyl nitrate containing a mosquito from which they extracted the DNA of a ‘60s cliché and cloned him. Somewhere, Joey proposed, on a faraway tropical island, enormous homosexuals lumbered through the rainforest tossing out quips like, “Oh Mary it takes a fairy to make something pretty,” scaring small mammals half to death with elaborate table settings.

Of course he is a fan of Liberace. The other standalone story is an even more extreme version of Trevor’s fantasy graphic novel. We meet Pussy, a drag queen who bartends in a rundown East Vancouver hotel bar (echoes of the Sea of Happiness) around the time of the disappearances of Indigenous women and sex workers. 

It is a solid story built on the struggle and need for hope and resilience despite a full awareness both will be dashed and destroyed. In 1999 the serial killer had just been sleuthed, in 2024 it is false wish fulfilment that the horror was stopped. Babineau steps confidently into the heels of an Indigenous two-spirited protagonist, and before that becomes a critical kerfuffle Monsieur Delacroix has something to say: “‘When you throw something new into the mix, you get evolution. And fashion,’ he added, holding up his freshly tatted talons. ‘Cultural appropriation is biodiversity.’”

Babineau writes with a confident gay voice, full of quips and sharply off-kilter but richly descriptive comments that stay on the literary side of arch. But Channel Surfing in the Sea of Happiness is also populated by lesbians, trans folk, a pair of sexually ambiguous goths, and a hefty helping of heterosexuals who are not only comic relief. Issues and dilemmas are not always resolved, but only once does an ending feel cheated. Life’s difficult but facing it with humour and community makes it bearable. And when it isn’t, one can always pick up carnies while channel surfing in the Sea of Happiness. And realize that in 25 years there will be extra resonance.


Drew Rowsome

Drew Rowsome is a writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. While his academic credentials are in film production, he learned his craft in the trenches with the late, great fab magazine, including a stint as editor during the second golden age. His current output can be found at and, focussing mainly on theatre, literature, horror literature, and all things gay. [Editor’s note: Channel Surfing in the Sea of Happiness is Drew’s first review for BCR.]


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction and poetry)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online 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

Leave a Reply

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

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This