Although Geoff Berner’s debut novel, Festival Man, purports to be a document found in the Alberta farmhouse of music-biz manager and all-purpose fuckup Campbell Ouiniette, who has mysteriously disappeared, it reads a lot like a memoir of a life spent on the fringes of the Canadian folk circuit. It is also, despite its author’s claim that it’s “packed with lies”, one of the most truthful accounts ever published on life as a touring musician.
Is there anything that’s not true in its pages?
“Well, I’ve consulted with the legal department at Berner Industries and have crafted a careful response to that question,” the cagey musician replies, on the phone from his Vancouver home. “And that is, ‘No comment.’ ”
In other words, it’s up to the reader to decide what is fact and what is fiction in Festival Man, beginning with the outsized character of alcohol sponge and chronic prevaricator Ouiniette.
“I guess with the Campbell figure, there is a guy who’s a jumping-off point,” Berner says, while declining to name names. “But he’s also the guy in the folk tale of ‘Stone Soup’, where he happens upon a village and tells everyone he’s going to make the greatest soup you’ve ever tasted with nothing but a stone, and then proceeds from there. He’s the blarney artist. I was watching When We Were Kings, the Muhammad Ali documentary, and Don King is a great example of that kind of guy. “Everything’s happening! Everybody’s onboard, and we just need you to make it so much better!’ When in fact no one else is onboard, and there’s nothing going on until he tells about 15 different people that tale.”
Berner is clearly fond of his central character, even if Ouiniette’s real-life inspiration likely owes the singer and accordionist a significant chunk of change.
“Another point that I’m trying to make is that with all these people who have difficulty controlling their appetites, or difficulty being organized, or difficulty controlling their tempers, their weaknesses are their strengths,” he stresses. “Campbell has this ability to ignore reality and insist that things are going to go the way that he believes they ought to. He doesn’t always succeed, but he does make cool things happen.”
Berner’s making a few cool things happen himself. As he points out, he’s celebrating a triple release this year. Festival Man’s publication coincides with the birth of his fourth child—“It’s like I’m a Mormon or something,” he notes wryly—and on Saturday he’ll add to his output with a vinyl version of the free download that accompanies purchase of the book. Festival Man, the album, finds a remarkable cast of folk and rock eccentrics—including ESL, Corb Lund, Carolyn Mark, Rae Spoon, and Maria in the Shower—covering Berner’s songs, celebrating both his writing prowess and the scene his book describes.
“That’s what I wanted people to understand from the novel, too, that there is a big and glorious community of musicians that are, in Utah Phillips’s words, ‘making a living, not making a killing’,” he says. “They’re affecting people, but not making the front page of the paper or getting in the gossip magazines or whatever. There are all these people that the vast majority of people aren’t aware of that are fascinating and wonderful. Some of them have substance-abuse problems; some of them don’t. Some of them have other problems. But they still deserve people’s attention, and I wanted to get that across.”
Now it’s time to get back to the book—the first in a trilogy, Berner promises—and figure out just who all its characters are supposed to represent. Here’s a hint: throat-singing aficionado and global superstar “Pixie-fuck-face” hails from Iceland. You take it from there.