The ‘expressive, unearthly power of weird’

The Vicar Vortex 
by Vince R. Ditrich

Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2024
$21.99 / 9781459747319

Reviewed by Ron Verzuh

*

Imagine you rattled your brain for a collection of wacky friends, gave them odd nicknames, and cast them in a clutter of events from a plane crash and a bizarre reality TV show to the appearance of a ghost giraffe. Slide in a disgruntled ex- with criminal intent on her mind and you have the makings of the plot for Vince Ditrich’s final Vicar Trilogy novel. 

Ditrich takes us to the fictional Vancouver Island town of Tyee Lagoon where world famous band leader and pub proprietor Tony Vicar rules the roost. It took me a few chapters to adjust my set, but I soon realized that Ditrich, himself a musician, was not writing a conventional novel. He was just having a lot of fun, probably at the expense of some loosely disguised old friends. 

The book opens with Vicar escaping, with his foster daughter Frankie, from a hotel fire reportedly assisted by an apparent ghost. Move to a plane crash with his buddy Gunnar Berring that lands them both in hospital. While he recovers, Ann Tenna, “outrageous and salty ‘barmaid maid’” and able-mouthed bouncer is joined by head cook Beaner Weens in looking after the Vicar’s Knickers pub. (The Vicar’s Knickers, by the way, is the name of his second novel; The Vicar Liquor is the first.) Ann Tenna’s boyfriend Ross Poutine runs the only liquor store in town.

Intermittently, we meet Serena De Medici, the mother of Frankie and the spurned Vicar lover. Vicar had split with her and teamed up with the outrageously gorgeous Jacquie O. The delusional Serena wants to take back the child she once abandoned and maybe reunite with Vicar. “If she had to kill to get her wish, so be it.” Will she deliver on that promise? Her quest serves as a loose plotline.

Next meet Jacquie O’s mom, Beulah, a gin and Dubonnet-swilling mama of the counterculture who “lit up the place like a cheery fire that might go wildcat.” Ditrich has plenty of those descriptive lines for the whole gang. For yet another diversion, we have Farley Rae and Cosmic Ray, Vicar’s band members. Ronnie Balthazar gives the two layabouts a place to live and she falls in love with Ray, a UFO nut, who makes her “randy as hell.” 

Vicar signs a local contract for his band, the Hospital Fish, to play a gig at a local gas station. It’s a disaster that leads to the group’s breakup. Vicar smashes his guitar á la the Who’s Pete Townsend, sort of. Cosmic Ray, the drummer, whose kit straddled the gas pumps, had an altercation with a driver and quits the band. 

I happened to be watching a documentary about the band Nickelback as I read the novel and couldn’t help making the comparison between Hospital Fish and the Canadian supergroup, particularly in their struggling early years. Vancouver Islander Ditrich knows his music. He managed and drummed in Spirit of the West, a more successful group than Hospital Fish by far.

Author Vince R. Ditrich

After the botch-up at the gas station, with Vicar short of cash to pay his pub’s operating expenses, he agrees to a television deal with the Extra-Large Mediums of Littlejohn. Two oversized sisters, Debbie and Dawna, run a successful TV show featuring off-the-wall stories that are often fabricated. Here Ditrich takes a poke at news reporters and media in general and the sisters provide ample reason for doing so.

The sisters want to film Vicar discussing his encounter with the apparition. Earlier, Beaner has lied to the interviewers about the ghost. The sisters want Vicar to discuss it. At first, he refuses to cooperate, but the pub bills are mounting so he gives them the cook’s tour of the Valentine Hotel, renamed after the fire at Vicar’s hotel.

Added to all the antics of the Tyee Lagoon crowd are Firehall Gordy, with his absent prosthetic leg, and his sidekick Hotchy-Coochie ready to assist the sisters. Con-Con the lesbian cop, is there to sort out any problems. 

Back on the reality TV show set, pandemonium cuts loose when a ghost giraffe appears with the Valentine Hotel ghost. At this point, we have truly stepped into Vicar’s acid trip with ghosts popping up everywhere, Serena popping up in disguise, and Vicar donning his Elvis Presley imitation garb.

Toward the end of the book, we again meet Serena, her mind “a zoetrope of unmoored illusion,” plotting to get her baby back. What happens next is best left to you to find out. Vicar spends the last few chapters pondering his mistakes and ruminating on “the expressive, unearthly power of weird.” 

As a novel, Vortex is unlikely to win any major literary awards. That said, it’s piles of fun for anyone who has fond memories of their zany days of youthful craziness. Ditrich’s life as a musician no doubt served up many of the colourful moments described. 

Does it matter if the book is a collection of exaggerated depictions of the lives of a motley crew of misfits? Probably not at all. If you’re a musician, it probably makes perfect sense. Nickelback would relate. So does singer Jann Arden who praises the “zany trilogy” as “getting better and better.” Perhaps you had to be there?

*

Ron Verzuh

Ron Verzuh is a writer and historian. He’s recently reviewed books by Aaron Williams, Michel Drouin, Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson), Haley Healey, Keith G. Powell, Geoff Mynett, and John Farrow for BCR; he also contributed an essay about trade unionist Harvey Murphy.

*

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.

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