“Gonzo Dante”: Jesse Hilson on Garth Miró’s Novel The Vacation

Garth Miró’s novel The Vacation is rollicking, obscene fun with large veins of noxious social satire laced throughout. When a heroin-addicted, dissatisfied social climber joins a cruise in the Caribbean with his high-society European wife for a momentous time that could end in their divorce, or worse, they find themselves entering the corridors of an inescapable new society at the mercy of a mysterious authority. The sensation of being simultaneously released from all rules on vacation and yet under the watchful eye of the crew in the nautical government of a cruise ship is hilariously captured by Miró. Hugo, the narrator, comes to realize over the 180-page Vacation that the vacation he is embarking on is actually a nefarious cult run by the leader of what he calls “Zealots of Chill,” the Director of the cruise. Relaxation is highly sus; to what end is all this unclenching and laying out in the sun?

Hugo is a survivor and an astute observer of the grotesquerie of other human beings, both physical and social. Americans on vacation are spectacles of horror, the beast when it lets its hair down is ugly, and Miró via his protagonist Hugo caricatures every wrinkle and every pair of sagging tits with all the acuity of illustrator Ralph Steadman, whose notorious collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson gave a visual “pathway inwards” to the journalist’s feverish writing. The Vacation is a supremely visual novel, it’s a gallery for the eyeball to stagger through. Other comparisons to outré artwork spring to mind: Aspects of the novel reminded me of the creepy short film “The Spine” by Canadian animator Chris Landreth, where inner psychological states of characters are made horribly manifest and external. Miró’s novel doesn’t just flirt with cartoonish hallucination, it goes deep into the territory like a gonzo Dante traipsing in a spiral down into a luxurious inferno where everything is comped yet actually all the luxuries are falsehoods. 

The cruise ship is turned into a performance space, a stage where behavior is on display to be judged. And Hugo is a ferocious judge of his fellow castaways, including his own party. At a dinner onboard where guests are served meals “according to the profiles you filled out,” Hugo and his wife CC are served “pucks of steak that hadn’t yet thawed in the middle.” Hugo makes do with his sharp knife while CC, the European with shrewish tendencies, agonizes at the other diners:

She kept glancing at the din in the corner. A hefty laughing. Something better, much, it sounded. Far away from our miserable table. What were they eating? I saw her grave concern. What had the Cruise Director decided was needed for them? It killed her. Places in the hierarchy had clearly been assigned. Based on what? That I could not guess. We were certainly the richest here. By far. We were not even supposed to be here.

The relaxers who can’t relax and thus turn their vacation into an existential ordeal is a perfect emblem of the contemporary condition. It is as if vacationers aboard a cruise are not supposed to look at each other, at themselves, their surroundings. To be insensate.

One fascinating satirical charge of the novel, which I will only outline so that readers of The Vacation can discover it for themselves, is the way that group activities such as cruises have a way of absorbing individuals who may want to stand apart, and putting them to work. Hugo is the satirical viewer with the criticizing gaze, having outrageous misadventures such as when the boat sets down on land for a time, catching exotic lizards to be ground into Chinese black market penis pills. He witnesses the oozing pleasure-seeking of the passengers, but along the way—perhaps exchanging the neediness of his heroin addiction for devotion to the Common Cause—he becomes the Cruise Director’s most devoted heavenly robot, rising through the ranks to the inner sanctum of the cult where power is exercised. This allows him access to the restricted areas of the cruise ship, the “froufrou poltergeist at the heart” of the vessel that has been calling out to him. Authority, who’s in charge and how the flowchart of power is drawn not between individuals but inside them, is one of Miró’s great subjects.

Miró is a gifted writer with a comic style that pummels the reader. At his best, Miró sets his prose-weapon on fully automatic, staccato fire, with Sam Pink (the leading literary light who edited the novel) feeding the ammunition belt, and unloads on the reader. And yet he can pull off delicate curlicues of language: a memory of a post-nose job prescription has Hugo “rattling like a maraca walking out of the pharmacy.” For Hugo, sex with his angry wife CC is “another action to further usher my body towards death. A hammer being triggered on a million-chamber roulette revolver. One day the bullet would be there. If I fucked enough.” Miró’s first-person voice is that of a finely-tuned stand-up comic pacing in a bilious spotlight telling vacation horror stories. You can feel the seasickness.

Colorful, multifaceted, anarchically funny, The Vacation is the beach read for your next record-setting summer heat index.

The Vacation, by Garth Miró. Expat Press, May 2022. 180 pages. $16.00, paper.

Jesse Hilson is a freelance reporter living in the Catskills in New York State. His work has appeared or will appear in AZURE, Maudlin House, Rejection Letters, Expat Press, Misery Tourism, Excuse Me Mag, Apocalypse Confidential, Empty Room Radio, and elsewhere. In 2022, his novel Blood Trip will be published by Close to the Bone (UK) and his poetry chapbook Handcuffing the Venus de Milo will be published by Bullshit Lit. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @platelet60 and he runs a Substack newsletter at cholorohemoglobin.substack.com.

Check out HFR’s book catalog, publicity list, submission manager, and buy merch from our Spring store. Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.