THE DILETTANTES

Michael Hingston
Calgary, Alberta: Freehand Books
267pp. $21.95
978-1-55481-182-3

Reviewed by Kimberley Kemmer

“This is how the world ends,” he thought, “not with a bang but an emoticon.”

University can be a strange and confusing time—and there’s no stranger time than the final semester, when real life begins to come into view. Just when you think you’ve finally cracked the code of the university student dynamic, it’s time to move on and turn that four year degree (time mostly spent drinking campus coffee, lounging around the newspaper office, etcetera), into a stable income. And when you’re certain you’ve found your place among your peers and campus has begun to feel like home, a new student body arrives and with it, a whole new culture—one of which you’re no longer a part. This is the reality staring down the characters in The Dilettantes, who decide to tackle it the only way they know how: with cynicism, irony, and detachment. Such is the way of the undergrad.

Alex Belmont, an editor at Simon Fraser University’s homegrown newspaper, The Peak, is nearing the end of his tenure at SFU. Alex’s expectations for a quiet exit are shot when The Peak’s life is threatened by the arrival of a corporate national daily, The Metro. Advertisers begin dropping left and right, leaving The Peak staff struggling to stay afloat. As the team desperately tries to maintain its alternative, ironic status, the news story of the century is brewing under their noses—the arrival of a celebrity and SFU’s newest student, Duncan Holtz, is running as the president of student council.  Alex and his copyeditor, Tracy, secretly follow Holtz’s rise to stardom, and report on the most bizarre student council election the school has ever known.

As tensions rise and The Metro gains a readership on campus, and graduation day draws closer, Alex questions whether or not trying to save The Peak is worth it. But instead of simply letting the newspaper crumble, Alex sniffs out the competition and gets the scoop on the biggest story of the year. The Peak’s tireless copyeditor, Tracy, is also growing weary of the campus experience, and the two must navigate their way through the final hurdles of campus life if they are to leave any legacy.

With wit and a true grasp of irony, Author Michael Hingston, a former Peakie himself, and current books columnist for The Edmonton Journal, excels at conveying the voice of the millennial. In his first book, Hingston affectionately explores his wayward characters, and their struggle through the recurring terror of post-graduation.  The sights, plights, and people found here will translate perfectly for anyone who has walked through a campus, or has been cooped up inside a dingy newspaper office.

Dialogue is as natural as the chatter in the hallways: a constant onslaught of pop-culture references mixed with musings and “hipsterisms.” Notable scenes involve quick-fire responses from characters hurling obscure references at each other.  They sound as though they were lifted from real exchanges in a campus newsroom, or around the table of a student pub. Hingston knows his characters inside and out, and is true to them. Some older readers might feel alienated, as references to very specific aspects of current pop culture (such as internet memes and bad websites) permeate the pages, but Hingston’s commitment to the millennial voice is steadfast and true, and culminates in a truly unique campus novel.